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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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Reader's Review: "Time Tree: The Emergence" by Lisa Rae Morris

Synopsis from Amazon:

Iris Jacobs wants to be taken seriously. She’s a newly minted college grad, ready to take on the world of historical research. What she finds instead is high rent and a job posting on a tacky flyer. Soon, she’s blowing bubbles while leading songs she doesn’t know, and calling BINGO games while breaking up fights between elderly dementia patients in a nursing home. She’s immersed in a world where you can’t believe a word anyone says. Except one man. There’s something different about him. Psychiatrists have declared him incompetent because, although he appears to be in his eighties, he claims to be a twenty-four year old master craftsman from Scotland. Strangest of all, his story checks out… about a hundred years too early. If Iris chooses to believe him, their unlikely alliance will test everything she believes about faith, love, friendship, and most of all, herself. Her quest to bring about his freedom will shake the very foundations of Time itself… and could cost her everything.

My Review:

Wowee! What a trip and a half that was!

I love a good time travel story, and I am absolutely an enthusiast of All Things Scotland. So if you give me a book that involves both of those things, you've got my attention; do it well, and you have my unflagging adulation.

I began reading Diana Gabaldon's series Outlander (and also watching the show) at the recommendation of a friend. Two things I will say about it: yes, the rumors you've heard about it are true; no, it wasn't a complete turn-off--I've read worse in novels that don't even warn you ahead of time. I appreciated Gabaldon's style, and she's dealt with the subject far better than a lot of other authors.

But that's not what this review is about. I'm just giving you context for where my tastes for "Time Travel and Scotland" have led me.


What a novel concept for a time travel device! A tree that is carved into something useful, but ends up serving as a portal into another world... Sure sounds like a classic favorite of mine! Morris takes after the masters of fantasy and portal fiction, setting up both worlds in very realistic detail, balancing two timelines, two main characters--and then melding their lives together in ways that will have you gasping, giggling, and cheering all the way through!

I love the way we get to know absolutely every character, but it doesn't feel like too many names to keep track of, since each one comes with their own batch of quirks and characteristics, even the Three Irenes--senior ladies who share the same name, but not the same manner of interacting with other people! (On that note: I should probably mention that Ms. Morris is a dear friend of mine, so there are a few characters that I happen to know are based on mutual friends--which made it all the more entertaining to see them in this story!!) Not a single beat or moment was wasted, even the smallest of instants have an impact further along in the story, or contributing overall to the character's arc. I loved the way that even though Morris included some characters who had a more omniscient view of things, she still managed to maintain the mystique, doling out clues and hints carefully, not spoiling too much all at once, but allowing the reader to try and put two and two together themselves. It made for a much more engaging and enthralling story, than if she'd just had those characters directly stating everything!

Time Tree: The Emergence truly emerges as a stellar fiction debut for Lisa Rae Morris! Without an ounce of reservation I give it a full *****5 STAR***** rating and add in an Upstream Writer Certified WHOLEHEARTEDLY RECOMMENDED endorsement. This book was everything I ever wanted to see in a "time travel with Scotland" adventure! The beginning caught my imagination at once, the middle kept me occupied and flipping pages frantically, wondering how on earth these characters were going to solve all these complex issues without causing even more problems (Grandfather Paradox, anyone? How about the Butterfly Effect?) and the ending came with a rousing sense of immense satisfaction... Followed by an epilogue that really kicked things up a notch and gave a definite sense of more to come! I think we're in for a series, folks, and I. Am. Here. For. It! Pick up a copy at your earliest convenience (especially if you're pining for more Outlander!) and don't miss a single glorious moment!

Further Reading: (Celtic Influenced/Time Travel/Vivid Characters/Enthralling Adventures)
The Fair Folk Chronicles--Jeffrey Cook and Katherine Perkins
        -Foul is Fair 
        -Street Fair 
        -A Fair Fight 
        -All's Fair
Spirit Knights--Lee French
       -Girls Can't Be Knights 
       -Backyard Dragons 
Lord of the Wyrde Woods--Nils Visser
     -Escape From Neverland 
     -Dance Into The Wyrd 
The Portal Prophecies--C. A. King
     -A Keeper's Destiny 
     -A Halloween's Curse
     -Frost Bitten 
The Therian Way--Kimberly Rogers
       -Leopard's Heart 
       -Wolf's Path 
       -Tiger's Shadow
Talented Series--Amy Hopkins
     -A Drop of Dream 
     -A Dash of Fiend 
The LouisiAngel Series--C. L. Coffey
        -Angel in Training 
        -Angel Eclipsed 
        -Angel Tormented

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Serial Saturday: "Red, The Wolf" Part 7

Part 7

Birds twittered overhead. Sunlight streamed in patches through the foliage. Red detected a subtle swaying movement that gently rocked her awake.

Then there was the smell.

A huffing breath accompanied by the foulest reek imaginable brought Red fully awake. The white wolf crouched in front of her, his snout barely an inch from her nose. He flicked out his tongue to lick his own face, and bopped her own nose in the process.

Red reeled back with a savage snarl, but the playful wolf just ambled to its feet.

"Ho!" called a voice, and the rocking came to a shuddering stop.

Red glanced over her shoulder at the man sitting in front, twisting around to look at them. Still a wolf, her thoughts confirmed.

Justin squinted hard against the bright sunlight reflecting off the wagon's canvas. "Everything all right in there? Rascal, don't bother Beauty till those wounds heal! We'll be stopping off soon."

Red glared at Rascal--but the white wolf didn't seem to get the message. He waited until she stopped growling, and then, as she turned her attention to exploring the rest of the wagon, she felt his presence too close. Red looked back to see him in the act of inching his nose closer to the bandage on her side! She let him have it with a bare-toothed roar, lunging at him. The younger wolf skittered back toward the rear of the wagon, but Red wanted him out.

"Rascal!" Justin shouted from the front seat of the wagon. "Get up here!"

Rascal whimpered a bit but scooted carefully past the irate Red to sit by his master's side. Red had the whole wagon bed to herself--and nothing else to do. She wouldn't dare leap out of a moving wagon in her state. The wounds of her wolf form were only compounded by the fact that her human form was also wounded--and the latter would never heal completely until she could shift again. The idea of having to spend the indefinite future as a permanently-maimed wolf sent a shudder through her body--which only aggravated the wounds. She slumped on the pile of tarp shreds with a groan.

"Don't worry, Beauty," Justin called over his shoulder. "I've got friends not far from here--they'll get you fixed up in a jiffy!"

Red rolled her eyes and buried her nose against her chest. She closed her eyes and tried to think of Queston:

The chilly spring mornings were always her favorite. She loved to creep out into the small yard behind the Garritys’ cottage, and let the dew cling to her wolf’s pelt. Deborah would treat her the same whether she was wolf or girl--always a smile, a tender hand stroking the top of her head--and absolutely no nonsense when it came to pilfering her baked goods while they cooled. Red hadn’t known another place that felt so much like a home to her--the Garrity cottage was the center of her world, and everywhere outside was a dark and empty void….

The thrill of her first chase, when a pair of thugs decided to raid the local trading post, where collections of goods and harvests were stored and dispensed according to Queston’s unique bartering system. Wendy had witnessed the pair of them come in, trash the place, and haul off far more goods than they actually needed. Red picked up their scent and tracked the men down, to a haphazard camp further up in the mountains. In wolf form, she had ruthlessly attacked the men, defending herself against their weapons while dealing just punishment for their criminal behavior. She chased them off, wounded and terrified, and when they were far enough away, she had gone back to the camp, shifted into a human, and carefully packed up all the stolen goods to return to the post. The look of delight and awe on Wendy’s face when she discovered the recovered items in front of the doorway the next morning made the previous night’s battle all the more worthwhile…
Being a wolf and the Guardian of Queston wasn’t all about taking down villains and attacking people, either. Red sighed as she recalled the time when two desperate parents had sought out her den up in the mountains, bringing a nosegay of crimson hoods as a sort of appeasement. Their son had gone missing in the wide, craggy forest, and they needed the Wolf to find him. 

Red had tracked his scent easy enough for a long distance--much farther than she expected a boy to clamber about--and it led her to evidence of a disturbed animal of some sort--possibly a bear. The boy’s trail became erratic, and she had found traces of blood on the rocks near a small creek that wound through the cliffs. The water had taken the boy’s scent, but Red was not about to give up just yet. She found a way across the river and picked up the boy’s trail on the other side, and she kept going until she found him--alive, cold, damp, wounded and gravely ill. He had been terrified, screaming at her and throwing whatever he could lay his hands on to keep her at bay, and Red had to approach him in her human form to convince him that the wolf only wanted to help, to return him to his family safely. Together, the boy and the Wolf made the trek back to Queston, and Red stayed just long enough to observe the family’s reunion from a distance.

Her decision to protect and defend the small mountain village wasn’t about becoming some kind of celebrity or essential part of every aspect of its citizens’ lives. She cared to see them thrive--and to be in this position now, carried far away without any hope of seeing them again, she didn’t know how much longer she could bear it.

A strange array of smells assaulted her nose just before Justin’s wagon bumped and wobbled its way to a halt.

Red staggered to her feet. Her forelegs wobbled slightly, and a shooting pain arced across her chest. She could hear Justin speaking with someone, while Rascal yapped and scurried around like a common pet, eliciting laughter and cheers with his antics.

"Been a piece since we saw you last, Justin!" boomed a deep voice. "Some of us were beginning to think that the backwater villagers had convinced you to tarry with them!"

Red's hackles rose as she heard the laughter at the jibe. A female voice chimed in, "Either that, or the poor folks didn't have enough to make it worth your while!"

A growl built within Red's throat. Didn't have enough? The double-dealing peddler had taken anything and everything that the good people of Queston had lavished upon him! And for what? It was he who gave them naught in return for hours and weeks of careful cultivation and labor! It would be he who would gain much from the extravagant city folk who could be tricked into thinking that these finely-crafted items were imports from an exotic land. Meanwhile the "backwater villagers" would starve without wholesome food on their tables, would freeze without the good blankets to spread on their beds.

Over my dead body! Red thought, and raised herself into a defensive stance as Justin replied to the curious carnies.

"Aye, 'twas not much, but I did find some treasures among the odds and ends and threads and trinkets! Just look at what I ha--"

Red interrupted with a loud snarl, showing her teeth when she saw the peddler's hand reaching back for the tarp. He yanked his hand back to safety, and she saw the eager motley group gasp and shrink back at the sight of her.

"Cor, Justin!" snapped a man with eyes so big they seemed ready to pop out of his head. "Whassat you 'ave back there?"

Red didn't twitch as the other carnies chimed in.

"Been takin' on more strays, 'ave ye?"

"I should ha' twigged Rascal might take 'isself a mate!"

"She's a wild one, aright!"

Through it all, Red hadn't stopped growling. She couldn't have prevented those things from leaving the village, but she would do her almighty best to prevent them from leaving the wagon.

Justin held up his hands as he inched closer, testing to see if she would attack him then and there. Red was no fool; she knew the moment she actually sank her teeth into Justin, as she so badly wanted to do just now, the others would be on her and not a one of them would hesitate to plunge a knife into her. She simply held her ground as Justin merely reached back and tossed aside the tarp, revealing the priceless heirlooms he'd stolen.

"Oy! That's some ripe stuff, that is!"


"Is it real gold, ye reckon?"

"Careful, don't get too close to the stray!"

Red was so fixed on watching Justin's movements that she almost didn't notice the tall man reaching over the side of the wagon to pick up one of the silver candlesticks. She darted for him, puncturing the meaty part of his hand in an instant.

The man roared in pain and staggered back.

"SHE BIT ME!" he screamed, clutching his injured hand. "THE SAVAGE BEAST BIT ME!"

The air filled with protests and outcry as Justin tried to explain that they had nothing to fear, and he would be the one to display all the goods.

"She won't hurt me!" he said. "I took her in and patched her up! Here, let me show you..."

It was too late. Red felt the sense of accomplishment as the crowd waved Justin off and returned to their own amusements and duties. He did not hold the same sway over these that he did over the people of Queston.

The peddler twisted his mustaches as he watched his audience wander away. He glanced back toward Red, and she merely held his gaze without making a sound. Her work was done.

Finally, he sighed. "All right, Beauty, you win this one," he muttered, scooting his way out of the wagon again. "But you had better not give me so much trouble when we reach the city!"

Red maintained her stance until Justin had sauntered away from the wagon to join the others around the big bonfire at the center of the camp. At last, she relaxed and let her sore legs collapse as she stretched out in front of the pile of ill-gotten goods. She wasn't some dumb pup who willingly complied with any human who showed her a kindness. She knew better than to trust anyone outside of Queston--anyone associated with Justin the dishonest peddler. She would make his life so miserable with her that he would have no choice but to bring her (and the stolen heirlooms) all the way back to Queston just to be rid of her. This was her mission, and failure was not an option.

She had just closed her eyes when her nose picked up the scent of a strange carnie. Red's head snapped up to attention and she focused on the slim, cloaked figure.

The stranger approached slowly, hands fully on display, head bowed in a submissive gesture. Red let out a warning growl, and the woman stopped, lowering her cowl to give the Wolf a better view of her face, but without making direct eye contact. Whoever it was, she knew all the signals to communicate that she meant no threat to Red's dominance. Red inched forward to the edge of the wagon bed. If the woman dared come any closer to the heirlooms in the wagon, she would have Red's teeth to reckon with.

The woman stopped within arm's reach of the edge of the wagon bed. She did not venture any further, but let her eyes slide over Red's form. She still held her hands out in front of her, and Red breathed in her scent: strong herbs, sage, incense, cloves... Red smelled her calmness, her intrigue, her sense of earthy connection. The hands came closer, but the eyes remained fixed on the Wolf. Red let the growl fade to almost nothing, but the woman made no sudden moves. Her hand brushed against Red's paw, and instinctively, Red tilted her head and snapped her jaws very close to the woman's skin. The woman obeyed, and held still.

She's not after the heirlooms, Red thought to herself. She's curious about me. At this realization, Red finally sought the woman's eyes. Did she know about Red? Would she help? The woman maintained her gaze just below Red's line of sight, and dared to reach toward Red's injured shoulder.

"Oy!" Justin's harsh cry broke the moment between them, and he came tromping over the grass toward them. "Hands off my wagon, you!"

The woman withdrew her hands and backed away one full pace. Red backed away too, retreating to her spot near the pile of stolen goods as Justin came to stand protectively at the back of the wagon.

She saw the way this strange woman glared at the peddler. "This one is not yours," she said, nodding toward Red. "You have stolen her from her home."

If Red had been human, her jaw would have dropped. A small thrill rippled over her hackles. Someone knew!

Justin snorted. "I haven't stolen nothin' or no one! This wolf here followed Rascal back to camp, and she was already bleeding, so what was I going to do, just leave the poor animal? I wrapped her up, put some o' that special salve on there too, but she seems to still limp about. I was hoping Maribell had summat else to heal her up. I might get used to having two pets gamboling about!"

The woman placed her hands upon her hips and leveled her gaze at Justin. "The wounds you can bandage will heal, but there are others you do not know, and these will not heal by any means you would attempt yourself."

Justin crossed his arms and glared at her. "Oh yeah, Desiree? And why's that?"

A small smile played around Desiree's lips. "Because under those bandages are the wounds carried by a wolf--but this one is not just a wolf. She is also a woman."


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Friday, November 8, 2019

Flash Fiction Friday: "The Prince and The Rose," Part 4

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

Part 4

In the shadows of what little remained of the upstairs parlor, the monster crouched.

Guilt averted his gaze from the gently-glowing rose under the glass jar. The wailing sobs of his unfortunate guest only made things worse.

How could he have gotten the resolution to all of his troubles so very wrong?

The fault, of course, lay with the young lady. Raul had noticed that when she first arrived: from the disdainful sneers she gave her surroundings as she picked her way through the castle, to the loud and self-important way she talked to herself incessantly.

A growl built in his beastly throat as he recalled watching her discover the room of dresses--carefully curated from all across the land, to impress any ladies who begged to visit him, back when he was still the dashing, enigmatic Prince Raul, The Eligible Bachelor. He stared down at his hairy, misshapen claws. Clearly her outburst had been correct. What civilized human would deign to interact with him now? Certainly not this girl, the first person near his own age that he had seen since his transformation.

No, she would never see him as anything but a terrible monster to scream and throw things at. No matter how many meals he prepared, fires he lit, rooms he cleared and opened in an effort to make her feel more comfortable--it was all in vain. She would always believe that she was his prisoner, that every day in this castle was her punishment, a torment for her to suffer until it ended.

Well then! Raul thought to himself as his lip curled in a snarl, if torment is all she expects, then why should I put any effort to the contrary? He had carved out for himself a solitary existence, never worrying about human comforts and small luxuries a feral beast did not deserve nor understand. He wouldn't concern himself with anything outside his own survival any longer. If that girl couldn't trust him to help her survive, then she deserved to be left wholly on her own.

As the sun set that evening, the castle stood dark and cold.

Raul crept down the hall and dropped over the railing and into the foyer. He paused at the sound of a terrified squeal and running footsteps: Mademoiselle Charmaine, forever avoiding the sight of him.

Raul crawled out to the courtyard. Not long after all the humans had run away screaming, the woodland creatures had begun to invade this space, almost as if reclaiming the territory they had lost when Raul's ancestors built this castle in the midst of a forest. That suited the beast just fine, as it provided him with a steady diet of rodents, rabbits, birds, foxes, and even the odd deer, long after the stores in the castle cellars had run out of food suitable for him.

He chomped noisily, relishing the cracking of bones and the slurp of wet flesh as he thought of the terrified damsel trapped in the castle above him.

Once he had his fill, Raul climbed the uneven rock wall to the balcony attached to his bedroom suite. He wondered, as he slipped into a fitful sleep upon a pile of distressed cushions spread on the floor, how much longer he would have to wait until the truly selfless heroine would arrive to free him from his own peculiar torment.

For three long days, the two occupants of the castle studiously avoided each other. Raul lapsed back into the habits he had formed during two years of solitude. The only difference was that every so often, he would glimpse a colorful train or a flash of jewelry, accompanied by a strangled yelp every time.

She would always be terrified of him. Raul couldn’t think of anything that would change that.

On the third day of stillness, dark, and cold, Raul heard something he had not heard yet.

Charmaine called him prince.

“Your highness?”

His heightened senses told him exactly where she was, and he made his way over to where she stood.

He saw her framed against the dying light of sunset. She crouched next to the table where stood the enchanted rose, swathed in a gilded robe. Her wide eyes darted around the deepening shadows, unable to see him but imagining that awful face at every turn.

“Oh Prince...” she whimpered, “Please—I am so cold, and hungry, and I cannot light the fire myself. Will you do it for me?”

Raul came out of the shadows. His eyes pierced the darkness and he could see her clearly. There was the scars from his claws down her arm and her face. The more he watched her, though, the more he discerned her clear eyes, her delicate chin—the way her hair caught even the merest sliver of light and gleamed.

Her body tensed and she gave a small gasp as her gaze rested squarely upon him. Immediately, she turned away, covering her face with her hand. In that movement, Raul could see the large scab tracing down her arm, and the red stripes upon her cheek. He turned away and busied himself with piling logs upon the hearth. The injuries brought back memories of her voice, screaming at him; her face red and flushed with anger and terror. She wasn't ugly, by any means--but her treatment of him belied all her good looks.

As he turned back to look at the rose upon its table, Raul reflected on the way he had relied so much on his own good looks. Was that the thing people remembered most about him... or did they, like he, retain memories of how he had treated others--the snide comments and the rude, oblique way of speaking...

Charmaine gave a small cough, bringing the Beast Prince out of his reflections. She hadn't moved an inch. Raul crept past her, out of the room, and down the hallway. This time, instead of leaping over the balustrade, he took the dusty, creaking stairs down to the ground floor, where the main hall could be found. He couldn't tell if Charmaine followed him, but as far as he knew, she preferred it if he simply ignored and avoided her.

Raul stacked the wood upon the hearth and scratched his claws along the flint stone to make a spark to light the kindling. While the fire grew, he traveled down to the kitchen, making his way to the larder to see what remained of the stores. It might not be much, and it certainly wasn't decadent by any means, but at least it would be edible for her.

When he returned to the main hall with a tray laden with a bowl of soup heated over a flame, and some long-lived biscuits that had remained palatable after two years (albeit a bit dry and crumbling), he could see the glittering lump curled in the armchair before the fire.

His foot-claws clacked and scraped on the marble floor. Charmaine's head turned to confirm who approached, and when she saw him, she turned away again.

"Just leave the tray on the floor by the chair," she murmured from the depths of the robe. "I can't eat with a ravenous beast crouching so near me--it turns my stomach." He saw her pull her lower lip between her teeth after she said this last remark. She blinked a few times before finishing, "I hope you understand."

Raul did as she requested. He understood her discomfort. She had made her distaste for him abundantly clear. He withdrew across the room--but once outside the door, he lingered in the hallway.

He could still hear Charmaine, sobbing quietly to herself as she ate the lonely meal. Then she began speaking.

"What am I even doing here? This whole mess is completely not what I bargained for--not what I ever asked for or wanted in any way!" She sniffed noisily, and from the rustling of fabric Raul guessed she might have even wiped her nose on the gilded dressing gown. "I work so hard--so hard--at being the kind of person who gets what she wants, the kind of person that everyone wants to be... And where does that get me?" She paused to whimper a little. "Alone. In a giant castle. Surrounded by dirt and stench and old things and outdated clothes. With only a stupid, lumbering, slobbering beast for company!" She huffed again. "At least he could have imported something from this last season--but no-o-o-o! He's a beast, what does he know of fashion?" 

Raul felt her words rankle him somewhere in the roots of his hackles--but he restrained himself. She needed to at least tolerate him enough to break the curse at some point. If he reacted now, it would only serve to increase her reasons for hating and avoiding him--and he'd be trapped as a beast for the foreseeable future. So he quelled his rising anger and continued to listen.

"I miss my new clothes!" Charmaine wailed. "I miss going to parties... I miss the jewels and the finery! I miss the food... the music... the dancing!" He could hear her shoes tapping lightly on the floor as she paced around. A brief glance proved that Charmaine was now waltzing by herself around the room, still spouting things she "missed" after only a few days in Prince Raul's castle.

"I miss the desserts at Lady Rosalind's soirees! Dear Madeline Larkin could always serve up the most amazing dishes! I miss the taste of roast ham, and sugared fruits... Can I even manage to remember the dance to The Merry Trace of Summer anymore?" She stopped and cast herself upon a nearby lounge, coughing at the cloud of dust sent up by the cushions. As she settled, she gave a small moan. "I miss my friends! Well," Charmaine sniffed again, and sat up a little. "Not everyone I'd socialize with--I wouldn't call them friends exactly... But Felice! Dear Felice!" A touch of real sadness crept into her voice, and Raul leaned in closer to hear her words. "I miss the twinkle of her blue eyes! I miss her delicate features! I miss her curly mahogany hair, the blue floral dresses with the lacy bodice that she would always wear... Her strong, loud voice and the way she'd wave her hands when she spoke... Out of anybody, she knew me best! What I wouldn't give to see her again, to tell her that she was right about everything! Staying here wouldn't be half so dull if she was here with me!" 

Raul listened with growing amusement at the free confessions of this self-absorbed girl.

The moment of hope and fondness passed, and the old bitterness returned as Charmaine continued. "If only Father wasn't so rude, and stupid, and inconsiderate--this is all his fault! Who does he think he is, trapping his own daughter in this absolute pit of a ruin, with a beast who doesn't even care about causing another person pain!" She let out a petulant sigh. "I was only looking at the rose--it wasn't as if I was going to steal it or break it or anything! He's just selfish and rude and stupid! Oh, woe is me! If anyone deserves pity, I dare say I do! I suppose," she huffed, "I know how he feels now--so alone, left behind by everyone we thought were friends, and all the money and prestige in the world couldn't save us from our cruel fate!"

She commenced crying and feeling sorry for herself all over again, and Raul moved away to his own side of the house. The evening certainly hadn't turned out anything like he expected--and the long-awaited end to his own torment seemed further away than ever before.