Written for SteelNeko as part of the "while we tell of yuletide treasures" obscure fandoms secret santa project (2006).|
Many thanks to ella_bane and midnitemaraud_r for beta'ing this story - and to batgirl39 for the wonderful art!
"Ever as before..."
by Beth H.
(c) December 2006
There was once, or so the old books tell us, a handsome young prince who lived in a magnificent castle in a faraway land. However, this prince - spoiled, selfish, and unkind - had no love in his heart, and so, as punishment, an enchantress transformed him into a hideous beast in order that he might learn the meaning of love and compassion for others.
The time allotted by the spell to learn this lesson was meant to last only until the Prince's twenty-first year, but the prince was slow to learn all he needed to know. And the magic? Ah, there are times that magic works its own will, with a power beyond that of mere enchantresses. And so, within the walls of the castle grounds, the same force that had transformed the prince into a beast held back the end of the prince's twenty-first year.
There came a day, however, when even the deepest magic could hold back time no longer.
The end of the spell was still a decade or more distant, but slowly yet inexorably, in a room in the west wing of the castle, the petals of a beautiful red rose began to fade and curl...
"Take that, you scurvy dog!" the small child shouted gleefully as she swung a hazel-bush branch over the side of her father's new wagon. "This ship shall sail free as long as I have my sword in my hand!"
"Who's trying to board us, Belle?" asked her father, looking back over his shoulder and holding Phillipe's reins lightly in one hand.
"Oh yes, I see them now!" her father said with a smile. "Watch out for that one with the red bandana. He looks as if...."
The rest of her father's words were buried beneath the ominous sounds of cracking wood and Phillipe whinnying in fright. Belle clutched at her father's arm just before the wagon tilted over onto its side.
"Belle!" her father cried, holding her tightly. "Are you hurt?"
"No, I'm all right," she said, shivering in his arms and trying hard not to cry. "What happened, Papa?"
"Let's climb out and see," he said gently, then lowered her to the ground. For a moment, she didn't want to let go of him, but she was a girl who was able to keep pirates at bay, after all, and so she released him finally.
If her father had been watching the road more carefully, Phillipe might never have drawn the wagon into the rut in the road, but into the rut the wagon had gone, and even more distressing was that Phillipe seemed to have pulled up lame.
"I was thinking that we could just ride on his back until we found the right town," her father said. "It couldn't be more than fifteen or so miles from here. But at the moment, I don't think poor Phillipe could walk the distance with or without us on his back."
Belle reached up and patted Phillipe's flank. "What about the wheel, Papa?"
"If I had my tools with me, I'm certain I could repair it, but...." He sighed.
"But you had to sell your tools to buy this wagon, didn't you? Along with all of Mama's things," she added in a whisper so that Papa wouldn't hear. He always seemed so very sad whenever she mentioned Mama.
"There was a farmhouse about five miles back," her father said, "and I've no doubt they'll be able to help us, but that's quite a distance for such a little girl to walk."
"I can do it, Papa. Really, I can," she said stoutly.
"I'm sure you can, Belle, but not before the sun sets and families lock their shutters and doors for the night. Maybe...maybe I could carry you," he said doubtfully.
Belle shook her head. The illness that had taken Mama had almost taken him as well, and ever since then, Papa hadn't been very strong. She didn't mind, of course; he was very clever and he was kind and loving, and those things mattered far more than strength. Or...at least they did most of the time. Right now her father was chewing on the ends of his moustache, which meant he was very, very worried.
"It's all right, Papa," she said brightly. "You can go without me. I'm not afraid. I'll stay here with Phillipe, and the two of us will wait for you to return."
"Do you promise to stay by the wagon, and not wander?"
For a moment her father hesitated, then he smiled and kissed her on the forehead. "That's my strong, brave girl! I'll be back before you know it."
Belle watched as her father disappeared swiftly into the distance. "There goes Papa, Phillipe," she said softly. "I hope the sun will still be in the sky when he returns." The horse's only reply was a gentle whinny, and Belle got off the wagon to pet him. It would be so much nicer if Phillipe could talk; she just knew he'd be able to if only he'd try.
She stood beside the horse for a long time, petting him and listening to the birds singing in the branches of the trees. Then she frowned and looked towards the forest.
"Did you just see that flash of light, Phillipe?" The horse did not answer, of course, but Belle nodded her head as if he had agreed with her. "It was over there behind those trees, wasn't it? What do you think it might have been? It's far too early in the day for fireflies, but...oh, do you think that it might be a magical lantern?"
Belle started walking, slowly and carefully, towards the edge of the forest. She hadn't forgotten the promise she'd made to her father, but the trees were very close, barely ten steps away from the wagon, and if it was a magical lantern, well...who knew what she might be able to do? Just to be on the safe-side, though, she picked up the hazel-bush branch she'd let drop to the ground when the wagon had tilted.
"You never know when you might need a sword," she said. "There could be pirates hiding here in the forest."
Belle was a little disappointed there was no magical lantern waiting to be found behind the first tree, but she told herself the light could have been coming from just a bit further into the forest. She looked back towards Phillipe, and when she had reassured herself that she could still see both him and the wagon, she turned back and looked behind a second tree.
An hour later, she had looked behind seventeen trees, found a nest where fairies might sleep, and fought six pirates and one troll. She was just about to practice climbing the mast, when the mast transformed back into an ordinary tree, and one which seemed to be home to a very large, very fierce looking viper.
Belle knew better than to make any sudden movements that would attract the snake's attention. She took one small careful step backwards, then one more, but at the third, her shoe caught on a tree root and she fell.
The viper slid down from the tree, instinct leading it directly towards her. Belle knew she needed to stand up and run away before the viper reached her, but she was too terrified to move.
"Papa," she whimpered as the snake, fangs fully extended now, drew ever closer, but she knew her father couldn't hear her. She scrunched her eyes up tight and curled into a ball.
There was a rustling in the leaves and the sounds of footsteps - surely more than one pair of feet? - coming closer. When she opened her eyes, she saw a pair of huge, clawed hands reach down and grab the viper, then throw it high up into the trees where the snake wrapped itself around a branch for a moment before sliding away.
A second later, her savior also turned to leave, heading back into the forest from where he must have been watching her.
"Wait," Belle cried. "Don't go."
He stopped short, but he didn't turn around. His voice, when he finally spoke was deep and rumbled like thunder.
"Why do you want me to stay?"
"So I can thank you, of course," Belle said, sitting up and wiping the dirt off her arms. "You were very brave."
"And you were very foolish," he snapped. "What did you think you were doing?"
"Climbing the mast of a ship," she said in a small voice.
"A ship?" he said, turning just far enough around so that she could see how very long his teeth were.
She nodded. "I'm the captain," she said. "Captain Belle. What's your name?"
"I don't have one," he answered, then took one step further into the shadows of the forest. "Why do you care?"
"My mother used to tell me it wasn't safe to talk to strangers, but if you tell me your name, you won't be a stranger anymore."
"Hmm. And why are you not with your mother now?"
Belle looked down and wiped away the leaves that had stuck to her dress. "Because," she said, the words little more than a whisper, "Mama is dead."
"So is mine," her savior muttered in his deep voice.
"Belle! Belle...where are you, my child? Belle!"
"Papa!" Belle cried excitedly.
"Your father's come for you then," he said. "Good. You will find him just behind that stand of trees."
She looked in the direction he had been pointing, but when she turned back to thank him once more, he was gone.
"Belle!," he father called, sounding more desperate. "Where are you?"
"Papa!" She ran towards the sound of his voice. "Papa, I'm here."
The joy on both their faces when they saw each other was indescribable. He rushed to her and lifted her up in his arms, and Belle clung to her father, burying her face in his old wool jacket.
"Oh, Papa, I'm so sorry I didn't stay with the wagon," she said, still clinging to him as he walked back to the road. "But I saw a magical lantern and then there were fairies and pirates and...oh, there was a snake in a tree! It was bigger than you, Papa! And it almost ate me, but I was saved by a very hairy man with claws."
"Were you indeed, Belle?" he said, shaking his head as he always did when she told him about her adventures.
She nodded. "And what about you, Papa? Did you find someone to help us?"
"No," he said. "I'm afraid the farmhouse was deserted. We shall have to wait for someone to come by on the road. I'm certain we'll see another traveler before too long and....oh my!"
"What is it, Papa?" Belle asked worriedly, as she slid down to the ground. "Is something wrong?"
"I...don't know," he said, frowning a bit. "It doesn't look as if anything's wrong, does it?"
She turned to face the direction her father was looking, and her mouth opened wide with surprise. Phillipe still stood in front of the wagon, but somebody had bandaged his left foreleg and left hay for him to eat. And the wagon...it was no longer tilted at an angle, but was upright again, with the wheel fixed as if it had never cracked in the first place.
Belle ran over to the wagon and climbed up into it.
"Look, Papa," she cried. "Somebody has left a roast chicken...and oh, Papa! Come see! There is a box of tools, just like you had in the city! Now you can invent things again."
Her father climbed into the wagon and sat down, then drew her into his lap and held her tightly. "We must give thanks for our good fortune, my daughter."
"Papa...it must have been the very hairy man with the long claws. He must have done this."
"It would be nice to think so, wouldn't it, my dear?" her father said, smiling down upon her. "If only all the stories we told ourselves could come true and end so very happily."
A story? But he had been real...
"Come, Belle," her father said. "We need to hurry if we want to reach our new home before nightfall. Lay your head down on your little pillow and before you know it, we'll have arrived."
Belle lay down and closed her eyes, and in a very few moments, she fell asleep.
Her dreams were all of magical lanterns and fairies and enchanted princes - and when she awoke, her pillow smelled of rose petals.