Boy and the Beast
Papa had always told him he was a foolish boy, with a head full of feathers. No sense, no direction, not even much meat on him. Marius was the youngest of four brothers, and they had all filled out so proudly, bulking up plenty of muscle and helping out papa on the farm. Marius had been a sickly boy in his younger years, and it seemed he'd always be small and frail-looking, with porcelain skin, pink cheeks, green eyes, and a head of long, wavy golden locks that he was perhaps a little too fond of for a young man. His pleasure was not like that of his brothers. He found no thrill in working, sporting, or admiring the young ladies of the village. Marius took joy in fanciful tales, the sweetness of spring breezes, and the the velvet beauty of blooming roses.
His brothers were merciless, always teasing him for being small, slow, and weak, and for having a girlish appearance. Marius knew he could never fit in with his brothers, though he wished he could at least earn their love. He took solace in daydreaming, exploring, and reading books those rare times he could get his hands on them.
Marius and his brothers had a maiden aunt, a shrewd businesswoman who had a small fortune left to her by a merchant she had once been engaged to marry, but who had been lost at sea. In his memory, the woman continued to wear the ruby ring he had given her, and spent her life travelling extensively, trading in exotic goods and even more exotic tales. Marius and his aunt had a special bond, and he never tired of tales, whether they were of far-off castles, fearsome creatures, or tragic romance.
Every autumn, the aunt visited to bring them stories of her travels as well as gifts. Each year she asked the four young men what sort of gifts they wished of her upon her next visit. They requested exotic and valuable things, which they would thereafter go into town to sell, as what they really wanted was money. They did not tell her this, but she knew their character. Marius, however, was not interested in money, and asked for the true desires of his heart. He asked for lovely flowers from foreign lands, or, if she would be so generous, books. His aunt was wise, and knew all of the ways in which he was different from his brothers. Unlike others, she cherished these differences, praising his delicate appearance and appreciation for all things beautiful.
One year, the aunt came to their little farmhouse, pale and shaken, with none of her usual exotic parcels. When the four brothers and their father asked her what was wrong, she told them a tale of a catastrophe that had befallen her only a day's ride outside the village. In the deep woods, she had been set upon by highwaymen, who had taken her precious parcels and even her horse, leaving her carriage empty and useless upon the path. Searching nearby for assistance, she had come upon a magnificent chateau - at least, a chateau that once had been magnificent, but now was nearly overgrown, neglected, and fallen into disrepair. Hoping she might at least take shelter there, the woman approached and discovered a magnificently tended garden that defied the gloom and chaos around it. Thinking of Marius, she had taken the most beautiful red rose, knowing the lovely boy would appreciate it.
No sooner had the woman cut through the stem than a fearsome shadow had loomed over her. A great, snarling creature, not quite a man, not quite an animal, roared his rage at her, threatening to imprison her for daring to steal what was most precious to him. The woman was in awe, but found voice enough to beg the beast for mercy. She poured out her love for her golden-haired nephew, who was pure of heart and asked for little more out of life than beautiful flowers and stories. Intrigued by her words, the beast had tamed his anger and offered her a bargain. If he could meet this nephew she spoke of, he would release her, allow her to take the rose, and even give her a gift of gold coins to share with her family.
The woman had quickly agreed, The beast, however, knew that if he allowed the woman to leave, she may never return, and there was nothing to hold her to her end of the bargain. He demanded she leave what was most precious to her as collateral. All she could offer was her ruby ring.
Marius wept, embracing his aunt and professing deep gratitude that she had returned to them unharmed after this harrowing encounter. His father expressed skepticism that there could possibly be such a creature, and suspected the woman to be hysterical. The three elder brothers were inspired to find this beast and kill it, to skin it and bring its head and pelt back to the village as a trophy that would earn them fame and respect. Their aunt warned them they would never succeed, as the creature was too large, too fierce. In order to distract them from their aggression, she reached into her cloak to pull out the pouch of gold coins the beast had given her. The men were quelled by the gift.
Marius and his aunt were awake after the others had gone to sleep. He cared little for the gold, as she had suspected, but when she reached into her cloak once more and pulled out the stolen rose, Marius was rendered breathless by the beauty of the delicate bloom. He held it as a treasure in his hands, and brushed the velvet petals against his smooth cheek. His beloved aunt had paid dearly to bring him this precious gift, and he was seized with a passion to return her kindness.
"You must bring me to this chateau," he insisted. "I will meet this beast, and get you your ring back."
"I could not allow such a thing," said his aunt. "One ring is a small price to pay for freedom, and for the safety of my lovely boy. Let us speak no more of this, and soon it will be as if it never happened."
Marius was grieved, and could not rest knowing there was a debt to be settled and his aunt's precious ring was being held for ransom. He longed to set things aright as much as he longed for adventure and exotic tales of his own, and so, before first light, he saddled his mare and departed.
Remembering details of his aunt's tale, Marius knew which road she must have taken. He knew he was being reckless, but could not be dissuaded once he had an idea in his head. He rode all day until he came upon what he was looking for: his aunt's abandoned carriage. From here, he was able to discover where his aunt must have gone on foot. There was a recently trampled side path, almost a deer trail, that his horse was too large to enter. He embraced the animal about the neck and set her free, hoping she would find her way home.
The chateau drew him as if it wanted to be found, looming ahead of him as he pushed past the grasping foliage of the narrow path and into the clearing. He was trembling with exhaustion, hunger, and cold, having planned poorly for his journey. Daylight was quickly waning, and an icy chill of premature winter pierced his inadequate traveling clothes. Although afraid of what lay ahead, he staggered toward the chateau and toward his adventure.
The front door was not barred. Marius pushed it open and entered a great hall, dimly lit by a fire in a nearby hearth.
"Hello?" he called out, his voice timid and thin.
Ahead of him was a grand marble staircase stretching up to a landing hidden in shadows. Marius heard a distant click-click-click, as of a large dog's claws on a stone floor. A dark shape appeared near the top of the stairs, leaning over the railing to see him. Marius found his breath frozen in his chest.
The shadowy thing moved swiftly, leaping over the railing rather than descending the stairs, and landed heavily on four broad paws. Weakened from his journey as well as startled, Marius fell backward onto the unyielding floor and remained there prone, weakly gasping.
The beast sidled closer, gradually illuminated in the firelight as he approached. Marius was convinced at first that it was a bear, but he could soon make out a pair of horns, as of a bull. The shape of the face as it came into view was something like a lion's, and shining beneath a heavy brow were two wide, golden eyes.
The beast's jaws parted, revealing a set of long, sharp teeth before he spoke, in a low, rumbling voice: "You are the boy who was promised to come."
"You are not a boy, but a young man," the creature continued, creeping closer on his heavy paws, almost standing over Marius now. He lowered his furry head, and his nose twitched.
"Y-yes master," Marius stammered.
The beast snorted, taking a step back. "Do not call me master, for you are now mine, and I your servant."
Marius watched in wonderment as the creature prostrated himself, pressing his shaggy chin against the floor next to the boy's feet. "I... I don't understand," he exhaled, nearly breathless as he attempted to push himself up. "I've only come to help my aunt fulfil her bargain, so that I can return her ruby ring to her."
The beast pressed himself even more tightly against the floor, almost cowering, though his nose continued to twitch curiously. "I will honour the deal, young master, but not yet. You are tired from your journey, and your belly growls with hunger. You will eat well tonight, warm yourself at the fire, and sleep in comfort."
Disoriented and weak, Marius stumbled in his attempt to stand. The beast lunged forward, pressing his snout against the boy's middle to prop him up. Marius found himself leaning over the great furry head, clutching a pair of horns for balance. He inhaled deeply. The creature smelled of roses, of freshly turned soil, and of something dark and bestial. Marius was keenly aware of the twitching nose buried in his clothing, and the long, sharp teeth very near his soft belly.
"Thank you," Marius whispered uncertainly, finding his feet so that he could release the beast's horns and step back. Now that he had touched the creature, he knew he was not imagining it. "Is it terribly rude of me to ask who, and what you are?"
"I am cursed," said the beast, "and that is all you need know at this time. You are still weak, master, and need sustenance. Climb upon my back, and I shall carry you to the dining room."
Marius trembled as he placed a hand on the back of the crouching beast. The fur was soft, and beneath was warmth and hard muscle. He carefully mounted the beast as if mounting a horse. The creature moved with surprising grace and care, avoiding jarring the boy as he bore him away, across the shadowy hall and through an arched doorway into a series of dark corridors. Marius could not see where he was going, but the beast was surefooted and unhesitating. There was something lionine about the beast; perhaps he had a cat's eyes and could see by night. Or, perhaps he had simply walked these corridors a thousand times before.
Subtle changes in the air pressure and wisps of moonlight filtering through the occasional window indicated to Marius that they were passing through rooms large and small, but it was a smaller chamber that the beast brought him to, just the right size for two to enjoy an intimate meal. The room was illuminated by several softly flickering lamps, and the table was already lavishly set.
The beast lounged like a loyal dog near Marius' feet as he sat at the table, his stomach groaning with need. He lifted the domed cover off of the plate in front of him, and a cloud of steam was released, accompanied by a mouthwatering aroma. The plate was piled with tenderly cooked meat and vegetables, and Marius did not stop to wonder who had cooked the meal, or whether its presence suggested his arrival had been anticipated. He picked up a fork and ate ravenously. Between bites, he gulped from a silver goblet next to the plate that was filled with spiced wine. Marius had never had such a meal. He ate until his belly ached, and he felt ready to hibernate for the winter.
The beast once more carried the boy upon his back, this time up the stairs to a large bedchamber with a sumptuous canopy bed. Glowing red coals in the nearby hearth kept the room warm. Marius could no longer keep his eyes open, and was barely aware of being rolled onto the bed and covered with plush blankets and furs.
He dreamed of the chateau. He was wandering the labyrinthine corridors, searching for something he wasn't sure of. A voice called out to him from some distance away:
He followed the sound, quickening his steps. The voice continued to call his name, a deep voice, yet weakened with what sounded like distress.
"Where are you?"
Marius began to run, knowing there was a man somewhere in this chateau who needed help. He turned so many corners, passed through so many rooms, that he was certain he was lost forever.
Ahead of him was a dead end, and a set of tall double doors. He approached, and turned one of the gilded handles, heaving the massive door open to reveal a palatial bedroom, the walls hung with portraits and tapestries. The monstrous canopy bed, hung with heavy velvet curtains, seemed half the size of the house Marius had grown up in. He felt very small in this room, but he knew that whatever he was doing was important. Someone was in that bed.
The voice was a whisper now.
Marius drew aside one of the heavy velvet curtains. A man of about thirty, with deep brown hair, warm hazel eyes, and a neatly trimmed beard was lying on the bed draped in heavy blankets. His bare arms were stretched over his head, and each wrist was shackled to one of the massive oak bedposts.
"Who are you?" Marius wondered.
The man smiled wistfully. "I was once a prince, but now I am only a prisoner. Come closer, my lovely boy."
Transfixed, Marius crawled up onto the bed to sit next to the imprisoned prince. "How very sad. Can I set you free, and let you be a prince again?"
"It may be too late for me," the man sighed. "If you could set me free, I would be forever grateful. But I am not sure you can." He tugged on the thick chains that held him in place.
Marius leaned in to inspect the heavy iron links, and the shackles that seemed permanently affixed to the poor man's wrists. He felt great pity for the unfortunate prince, and his heart was grieved. "Please, might I do anything to help you?"
"Only stay with me a while, lovely Marius, and you will be helping a great deal."
The boy stayed at his side, gazing down at him. The imprisoned man was just like a handsome prince from a story. Marius's eyes followed the muscular arms to the bare shoulders, realizing that he wore no shirt.
"Be a sweet boy for me," the prince said in a soft, coaxing voice, "and take down the blankets down a little. It's very warm."
Marius reached out and slid the covers down, baring his broad, hairy chest.
"Do you like me, Marius? Do I please you?"
Marius could not form words, but he met the prince's gaze, feeling that his excitement must be obvious.
"Keep going," the man whispered.
Marius drew the covers down further, exposing his navel. A light trail of fur pointed the way downward.
The vision broke before he could get much further, and Marius awoke feeling breathless, shivery, and hot all over. He squirmed beneath the blankets and furs, indulging in a luxurious, full-body stretch.
Unaccustomed to privacy, luxury, and quiet, Marius lingered abed as long as he dared. Eventually, outside his door, he heard a steady click-click-click, recognizing it as the sound of the beast's claws on the stone floor. The creature was pacing back and forth outside his room, impatient perhaps, but polite.
Marius crawled out of the big bed, tried to straighten his rumpled clothing, and used his fingers to comb his long hair into a semblance of order before opening the bedroom door and peering out.
The beast paused his pacing and perked up his ears. "Master... did you sleep well?"
"Yes, thank you," Marius replied.
"Come," the beast invited, turning to lead the way down the corridor. The boy curiously followed along, glancing at each door they passed and wondering if there was a prince imprisoned within.
Marius found himself in a beautiful room with an ornately tiled floor, the centrepiece of which was a huge wooden tub lined with beaten copper. It was filled invitingly with steaming water.
"Please, refresh yourself," said the beast. "You had a hard journey yesterday. There are clean clothes in your room, and you are welcome to them once you've bathed. Then, you may join me for breakfast."
Marius hesitated before responding, concerned about the possible consequences of refusing the creature. Although the beast had been gracious and hospitable thus far, Marius had not forgotten the threats of imprisonment that had so frightened his aunt.
"It looks lovely," he ventured, "and you've been more than kind. But shouldn't I be leaving before it gets too late? I'll have to walk all the way. My family will be worried, and I'm sure my aunt misses her ring."
The beast dropped his head, somewhat in the manner of a guilty pup. He slunk over to a tall, arched window. "Look."
Marius joined him at the window and looked out. The grounds and forest beyond were blanketed in soft and deadly white, which was still floating thickly down from the heavens. His heart dropped. He had failed to anticipate this. If it didn't let up soon, he could be trapped here for months, with his family not knowing where he was.
"Oh no," Marius exhaled. His breath fogged up the glass and obscured his view.
"My apologies, master."
"Winter isn't your fault."
They stared at the blizzard in silence for a minute or two before Marius felt the beast's nose nudge his shoulder.
"The bath is hot, master, and should comfort you."
Marius nodded. His throat felt constricted, and he said nothing as he approached the tub. The water was fragrant with what smelled like rose oil. The beast nudged a chair toward the tub, stacked with plush towels, a washcloth, and a luxurious robe, and then left him alone.
He shed his clothing and climbed into the roomy tub. The bath was relaxing, the fragrance soothing him, and the warmth reaching all the way to his bones. He scrubbed himself all over and washed his hair, which felt very nice. Nonetheless, there were soon tears coursing down his cheeks. He soaked in the tub until the water was no longer hot, quietly sobbing all the while.
When he heard the distinctive sound of the beast's approach, he tried to wipe his face and calm himself.
"Master? Do you need anything?"
Marius turned to see him peeking around the door. "No," he forced out. His voice cracked, betraying his emotion.
The beast stepped in, creeping closer to him. Marius watched those golden eyes fixate on him, watching for signals perhaps, anticipating his objection. The boy said nothing, and made no move. The furry creature reached the tub and sat down.
"Don't call me that! I am no one's master. I am simply, Marius."
"Marius, then. I see that you are sad. I do not want you to feel like a prisoner here. I would like you to consider this place a home, and I would like to make it pleasant for you. I understand I am... not the sort of company anyone would wish for."
Marius sighed and closed his eyes, leaning back against the edge of the tub. "It's not that. I just feel awfully foolish."
"Well, isn't it quite apparent I'm not very bright? I came all this way on my own without thinking it through. I told no one, and took nothing with me. I could have gotten lost, or caught in a snowstorm. Papa says my head is full of feathers. I suppose he's right."
The tears began to flow again, and Marius covered his face in shame. Soon he felt the beast's snout nudge at him. His hands fell, and a warm tongue lapped at the salt of his tears. It painted his cheeks and neck until he squirmed and was no longer crying.
"You are adventurous," the beast said next to the boy's ear in his low, rumbling voice. "Feathers are soft and pleasant. Feathers also enable a bird to fly. If you are full of feathers, then you are full of magic."
Marius opened his eyes, regarding the beast with astonishment. No one had ever said anything so lovely to him, save perhaps for his aunt. "You are nothing like I expected."
The beast averted his gaze, his ears dropping. "I suppose you would not have received a very positive report of me. I... regret my behaviour. I have been alone a very long time, with only my garden for company, and consumed by bitterness. I should have welcomed a visitor, and instead I growled and made threats."
Marius tentatively stroked the beast's shaggy mane. "I know what it's like to feel alone. Even among my brothers, I always felt that way. They laugh at me, and call me names. They think I'm girly, and useless. I get lost inside my own head."
The beast pressed, catlike, against his hand. "Sometimes, Marius, imagination is all we have."
He gave the boy privacy for finishing his bath and drying off, and soon Marius was wrapped in the soft robe and back in the guest bedroom, combing through many handsome garments fit for a nobleman. His tears quite forgotten, he dressed himself in a blue and silver brocade waistcoat with matching jacket and breeches, and the shiniest leather shoes he had ever seen. He finished by tying his hair back with a blue velvet ribbon, and giggled at his reflection in a full-length gilded mirror.
"Sir Marius," he declared, giving himself a stately bow, and giggled once more before stepping out, his heels clacking on the stone floor and making him feel very important.
The beast was waiting for him in the corridor, and lowered himself to the floor when he saw the finely dressed boy. "You wear it well, Marius. I am honoured to host such a noble guest."
Marius blushed and was helpless to hold back another giggle. He spun around, and then bowed. "The honour is mine, noble beast."
Breakfast was as rich and satisfying as last night's dinner had been, and while Marius was now clear-headed enough to wonder where the food was coming from, he refrained from asking. He knew instinctively he was likely to get a vague and elusive answer, or perhaps there were some mysteries he did not yet want the answers to.
Marius spoke more about his brothers, his father, his childhood, and the dreams and fancies that sustained him, yet earned him the scorn of his family and peers. When he spoke of his adoration for books and stories, the beast seemed excited and immediately proceeded to lead him on a journey through the chateau. Noticing that the boy occasionally had to run to keep pace with him, he stopped and crouched. Accepting the tacit invitation, Marius climbed aboard.
His laughter echoed through the otherwise barren halls as he rode, clinging to the beast's furry scruff. The creature moved not at all like a horse, and Marius was fascinated by the muscular movement of the warm body beneath him.
At last, the beast slowed and padded through a tall, arched doorway. Brilliant light reflected off of the snow outside and filtered through the large windows, illuminating a sprawling library. Comfortable-looking leather chairs, small tables, and a couple of desks filled most of the floor space, and shelves of leatherbound volumes with gilt lettering stretched from wall to wall, from floor to ceiling.
"Ohhh...!" Marius moaned, overwhelmed and breathless. He dismounted and tiptoed up to the nearest shelf, reaching out with hesitant fingertips as if the books might pop out of existence like soap bubbles. Soon he was running his hands over the smooth, cool spines and pulling out book after book, examining titles and contents, sighing at the flood of words and the sweet, organic fragrances of aged paper and leather. He hugged a small stack of volumes to his chest and looked to the beast, finding his image blurred and refracted through a film of tears.
"You have no idea how I've dreamed of a place like this," he whispered shakily.
"Then it must be yours," said the beast, sitting like a proud lion before the boy. "Every book belongs to you, Marius. Take, read, and have your fill."
Marius laughed with joy, nearly sobbing, and continued his eager exploration of the shelves, making himself at home. "I've never been so thrilled in all my life! Have you read them all?"
"I have not," the beast responded in a low, almost growling tone. "I cannot."
The tone of the reply was so grim that Marius turned around with concern. The beast had raised one large paw and was staring down at it morosely. Marius felt foolish for not realizing the challenges the beast must face.
"Then you must choose the first book I will read to you," Marius declared.
The day melted into a dream. The beast stretched out in front of the hearth like a living rug, and Marius leaned against him, reading aloud from books of mythology and folktales.
Later in the evening, Marius spent a long time combing out the beast's fur as they spent hour upon hour in deep conversation, discussing what they had read as well as what was ahead of them, the topic wandering from folklore to history to science, philosophy, and numerous other subjects.
"Beast, am I dreaming?" Marius exclaimed. "Never have I had someone to speak with about so many wonderful things!"
"Not even the aunt you so love?"
"Oh, she is very nice to talk to, but rarely does she have the time for reading or for thinking about things beyond traveling and business. She had seen more of the world than a boy like me could ever hope, but I suspect there is more of the world here on these shelves than she will ever see."
"And your brothers, they are not interested in stories, I suppose?"
Marius scoffed. "They are only interested in scheming how to get money, or mooning over pretty girls. One grows tired of such talk."
Two golden eyes examined him closely. "You don't want money, or pretty girls?"
Marius stopped combing for a few moments and sighed. "I know that makes me a peculiar boy."
"Hmmm," the beast grumbled. "Well, there's no one else peculiar around here, is there?"
Meeting the creature's dancing eyes, Marius realized the beast had made a joke. It was so unexpected and so delightful that Marius collapsed against his furry side, shaking with laughter. The beast nuzzled him with boisterous affection.
"And what does young Marius want, if not money?"
"Books, of course!" Marius giggled.
"And instead of girls, what then?" the beast went on. "Boys?"
Marius quieted, and his cheeks felt very warm as he recalled his dream of the prince chained to the bed, and how he'd felt when he'd woken.
"You needn't be embarrassed, master."
"I'm not!" Marius exclaimed, and quickly lowered his tone. "That is... embarrassed about what? I don't understand."
"You needn't pretend either. Not here. Not with me. This is a safe place for you, away from a world that wants us to be something other than what we are."
In silence, Marius contemplated the meaning of this as the beast announced it was time to retire, and they left the library, making their way back through the labyrinthine halls.
After changing into a clean, soft linen nightgown, Marius let his hair down and crawled into bed. His mind was awash with everything that had happened in the last two days, which seemed like a much longer time. Home and family were distant memories.
As he lay in the oversized bed trying to fall asleep, he wondered if he'd dream of the prince again. The anticipation worked against him, and he could not lie still.
Marius lit a bedside lamp and found a pair of soft slippers for his bare feet. He padded out into the corridor and set off on a solo exploration. It felt so like last night's dream that he wondered if he was asleep even now. He tried to bring to mind the set of double doors the prince had been behind, wondering if the room he had discovered really existed.
He was cold in only a nightgown, and felt foolish for not thinking ahead and putting on a robe. He considered going back before he got lost or caught a chill, but when he turned the next corner, he was facing a set of double doors.
Breathless, he hurried forward, grabbing hold of one of the door handles and pushing inside.
There was a dim, reddish light from the coals slumbering in the hearth, and Marius could just make out the presence of a massive bed, and a shape upon it. The scent heavy in the room was dark and sweet, as well as familiar, and the boy was certain at once that he had stumbled upon the beast's chamber.
To make sure, he tiptoed close to the bedside, unable to free himself of the image of the imprisoned prince.
The beast raised his head, and Marius could see the twin glints of his leonine eyes in the darkness. The silhouette of him grew, and the boy felt a hot breath against his bare neck.
"Master," rumbled the impossibly deep voice, "have you come to me?"
Marius was choked for the space of a few deep breaths, as he felt the beast inhale against his neck and exhale hard, blowing his fine hair about.
"Only by chance," he stammered. "I lost my way."
The beast drew back, and another silence settled between them. At length, the beast pushed himself up, stretched, and hopped down from the bed.
Marius humbly followed as the beast led the way back to his guest room.
"Are you cross?" he could not resist asking. "I've intruded, and I do apologize."
The beast paused and glanced back at him. "No, master. There is no need. You could not possibly intrude."
Marius nonetheless felt as if something had changed between them, and he was unsure if he felt more concerned or intrigued.
"Why do you continue to call me 'master'?" he wondered. "You are not my servant nor my dog."
"Do you not find me to be like a dog?"
"No. You may have fur and paws, but you have a voice, and a magnificent mind, and a kind heart. You are not an animal."
The beast said nothing immediately, and they had soon arrived at the guest room.
"The reason I call you 'master'," he said as Marius slid beneath the warm covers, "is that I wish you would consider this chateau your home, and me your servant. It is more than I deserve. You say I am no dog, but I have been in years past. I have been lower than a dog. Your graciousness toward me is a treasure far beyond gold or jewels."
The boy reached for him, entwining both slender arms around the thick, shaggy neck. "Only call me Marius. I will be no one's master."
Marius heard and felt the deep sigh he heaved in response, and after a long pause, the beast whispered, "Stay. Stay with me, and be mine."
Marius' grip loosened, and he drew back, wide-eyed. A great many thoughts and emotions swarmed through him at once, and in the end, all he could say was, "How...? How could I?"
The beast lowered his head and slunk back toward the doorway. "Of course. Forgive me."
Left alone, Marius once more lay awake a long time. It was well into the night before he nodded off.
He was wandering the corridors again, looking for the prince. Though he heard no call, this time he felt more certain of the way, and before long he had pushed inside the bedroom to find the handsome prisoner slumbering, softly lit by warm dawn light filtering through diaphanous golden curtains. Marius crawled up onto the bed. He was naked, and knew the prisoner was also, though beneath the covers.
"My prince," he whispered, caressing the bearded cheek. "Why didn't you call for me?"
Sorrowful hazel eyes opened to meet his. "I dared not hope you would come to me, whether or not I demanded it."
"Why speak so? I'm here, and have been longing to return to your side."
"Sweet Marius." The prince's expression warmed. "You melt my weary heart. Let me see you, beautiful boy."
Marius rose up onto his knees, letting the man gaze upon him. "Do you like me?"
"Very much." He pulled at the chains that bound him. "I would give anything just to have freedom enough to put my arms around you."
"I have two arms free. May I?"
The prince smiled a very handsome smile. "Please do. Would you like to slip beneath the blankets with me?"
Marius burrowed beneath the covers. His bare body pressed against the prince's, and both sighed as he embraced the man.
"Marius," came a soft whisper, "I would very much like to kiss you."
The boy raised his head. "Truly? You wouldn't rather kiss a girl?"
The prince chuckled. "No. Would you?"
"No," Marius giggled nervously. "But it... it just isn't done! It isn't... allowed."
"I assure you, it is indeed done. Behind closed doors, people do a great many things that just aren't done. It's only you and me here, Marius. Who will tell us what isn't allowed?"
Marius swallowed, and drew closer. His lips were a breath away from the prince's, and he knew they would taste so sweet.
He awoke in mingled disappointment and excitement, every inch of him abuzz. It took him some time to catch his breath and feel ready to stand.
The day passed much as the previous one had, as did the day after that, and the day after. He continued reading to the beast, cuddling close to him, sometimes combing his fur. Most evenings, the beast asked him to stay, to be his. Marius was inevitably intrigued yet nervous, and was politely elusive. Every night, he dreamed of the prince, and grew ever more infatuated.
One day, the beast was quieter and more downcast than usual. He suggested Marius put on warm clothing so that they could go walking the rose garden.
Wrapped in a thick cloak, and with a knee-high pair of leather boots on, Marius followed after the beast as he went ahead, digging a path through the deep snow. The garden was unrecognizable, buried as it was, but Marius was astonished when the beast used his huge paws to clear some of the snow, and beneath were brilliant red roses, still living despite the chill.
"Books and roses," the beast mused. He pulled one magnificent bloom free with his jaws, and dropped it into Marius' hand, along with a second, smaller object. "I recall every day how your aunt spoke of you, of your pure heart, and the way you always asked for books or roses when she offered gifts. I have given you all I could, and you have given me more than you know, Marius. You must go."
Marius stood stunned as the snow swirled around him. He looked down at his hands. He was holding the most beautiful rose he had ever seen, and his aunt's ruby ring. He had almost forgotten his purpose in coming here. "Are we saying goodbye?" he stammered. "Here, and now?"
"I cannot in good conscience keep you any longer. I have done you wrong, and I cannot even ask for forgiveness. I have loved you, sweet boy, but I have failed in showing it, as I always do."
Tears rolled down the boy's cheeks. "I don't understand," he stammered. "What wrong have you done? You have only ever been good to me."
The beast's shaggy head hung low to the ground. "Come."
Marius followed him along a barely discernible path, away from the chateau. He was beginning to shiver, despite the warm clothing. Did the beast truly expect him to go home in such conditions? He sobbed and wiped his sleeve across his face, clearing away the tears that felt like they were freezing to his cheeks.
The beast stopped, and looked back at him. "You must go on alone from here."
Marius stood next to him, weeping helplessly. "How can I?"
"You must keep walking, master."
"I won't survive!"
"You will. You will see. You will understand."
Marius sniffled. "I don't want to leave you."
The beast stood still as the boy embraced him, clinging to his thick neck. He allowed Marius to hold him as long as he wished, and when the boy let go, he said nothing, but only gave his back a gentle nudge.
Marius wiped his face again and drew the cloak tightly around himself. He looked back once at the beast, wounded, and then pressed onward. The snow was nearly up to his thighs. He fought his way forward, feeling hopeless, abandoned, and lost.
The snow ended so suddenly that Marius cried out and took a tumble, landing on a mossy path lined with crisp autumn leaves. Gasping, he rolled over and looked back the way he had come. All he could see was autumn. There was no snow, no chateau, and no beast. Even the air had grown significantly warmer.
"It wasn't real," he whispered after a minute or two of attempting to gather the scattered fragments of his overwhelmed mind. Had none of it been real?
Marius stood and hurried back the way he had come.
The snow and cold hit him like a wall, and once more he cried out in shock.
"Beast!" he screamed, unable to even take two steps through the snow. "Beast!"
He didn't think the beast would come, but soon Marius saw a dark shape approach.
"You made it snow!" Marius exclaimed. "You made it snow, so that I would stay."
"You understand now."
Tears continued to roll down the boy's cheeks. He cried for the beast now, for the force of loneliness that would drive him to do such a thing. "I forgive you."
The beast growled and turned his face away. "You must not! I do not deserve it!"
"Nonetheless, it is given. Come away with me. We'll be friends. I'll take care of you!"
"Don't you want to be with me?"
"More than anything. But I am tied to this place. If I cross that barrier, the chateau is no more. Everything will be gone. Every room, every tapestry, the clothes, the unseen servants, the roses, and the books."
Marius was silent. He felt a terrible ache in his chest.
"Go now, Marius."
There was nothing more to be said. Marius turned to leave, once more transitioning from bitter winter to mild autumn. The cold, however, remained in his heart as he trudged in the direction of home.
With no mount, the journey was long, and he had to pass a miserable night curled up next to a hay bale in a farmer's field. At first light, he resumed walking, and it was into the following afternoon before he found home again.
His father and brothers received him with astonishment and fierce rebuke. They exclaimed over his foolishness, and wondered where he had gotten such ancient-looking clothes. Marius decided he did not want to tell them a thing about his adventure, knowing they would either refuse to believe a word of it, or, as they had done after their aunt's tale, threaten to find the beast and kill it.
To Marius' relief, his aunt was still staying with them, having thought it best to settle there for the winter, particularly as she had hoped for Marius' return. Marius greeted her with an embrace, and placed her ring in her hand.
"Marius!" she gasped. "How could you take such a risk?"
"I suppose I needed an adventure."
She looked him over as she brought him a bowl of soup. "You certainly have found one. However did you escape the creature?"
Marius hungrily devoured the meal. "He made me leave," he said between bites. "He's not quite what he appeared, you know. He was kind, and took good care of me. We were... friends."
"Friends!" the woman exclaimed. "Marius, surely you are not as foolish as your brothers seem to believe."
"Perhaps I am," Marius shot back irritably. "I had a beautiful time there, and I wish I could go back. He is a dear creature, and I have forgiven him every wrong."
They talked until nightfall, and by the time Marius was ready to sleep, he felt disenchanted and sorry he had returned. His aunt encouraged him to come away with her in the spring, to travel with her and learn a merchant's trade. He promised he would consider it, but he knew it wouldn't happen. Another time, he might have loved nothing better than the opportunity to embark upon world travel with his dear aunt, but after what he had experienced, he knew it couldn't satisfy. He wasn't sure anything could. He carried a heavy burden of guilt for leaving the beast all alone, though he had insisted.
What could be done? Could anything be done?
He lay awake with the beast's rose in his hand, stroking his smooth cheek with the velvet petals.
He dreamed that night of the chateau, in a sense. It was a castle made of ice, and he could scarcely walk through the rooms and corridors as it was all melting away. Would the chains melt too? Would the prince be freed, or would he be drowned?
"Where are you?" he cried out. "Call my name, and let me come to you!"
There was only silence. Now there seemed to be spatters of blood beneath his feet, but he realized they were rose petals, trampled into the ice. Marius began to weep.
It was not yet dawn when he awoke from this nightmare. Knowledge had come to him spontaneously, and of all of the times he had felt foolish for failing to think of something that ought to have been obvious, this moment was the worst. Marius cursed himself for leaving the chateau, and for not understanding who the prince was.
This time, when he left, he determined to think ahead. He packed everything he owned, though it wasn't much, and a fair amount of food and other provisions, strapping his hastily packed bags to his mare.
There was still daylight left when he arrived at the small but now familiar path, next to which his aunt's old cart still lay dormant. Marius strapped his mare to it and gave the old girl a few treats for her hard work.
"I hope I won't be long," he told her, and then dashed down the path, swatting aside branches and ferns as he went.
Marius was still wearing the warm clothes and cloak he'd gotten from the chateau, though when the blizzard hit him like a wall of ice, they provided little protection. The snow had grown even worse, and Marius had to fight for every step.
He had intended to head straight for the chateau, but the visibility was down to almost nothing, and he veered off course, ending up in the garden instead. Perhaps some part of him had come here deliberately, because this was where he found the beast, by now only a mound of snow with a few tufts of brown fur showing. Scattered all around him were rose petals that looked like blood in the snow. All of the roses had been shredded.
Marius threw himself upon the shape and began brushing away the snow with numbed, nearly useless hands.
"I'm here!" he called over the howl of the wind. "I've come to you! Do not leave me, my prince."
At last, he could feel a little warmth beneath the snow, and was hopeful the beast had not perished. He plunged his hands deep into the thick fur until he had sensation again, and continued to clear away snow. At last he found a horn, and an ear beneath it.
"I've come to you," he said next to the ear, both arms clutching at the warm, furry body. "I will not stay, but I will be yours if you come away. Let me set you free, my prince. Let us leave this place, together. I will not go without you."
Marius feared the beast was dead after all, but at last, he felt movement, and a warm breath. The great, furry head rose to face him.
"You cannot mean that... foolish boy."
Marius sobbed and pressed his face against the beast's cheek. "I do mean it. I may be a fool, but I would rather be your fool than anyone else's."
"You would leave your home, your family? You would leave even the chateau, the roses, and the books?"
"There will be other roses," Marius insisted, his fists closing tightly around the beast's fur. "There will be other stories. Everything else meant little to me. There is only one of you, and the way I feel when I am with you is the only thing I refuse to sacrifice. Though it may make me the world's greatest fool, I do love you."
The beast rolled onto his back, and Marius found himself sprawled across a warm, furry belly, with two massive paws holding him tightly. If this were the form his prince must take, he supposed he could live with it.
"I cannot leave this place," the beast said, at length, the rumble of his voice vibrating through every inch of the boy atop him. "Sweet Marius... with you next to me, I feel free. But you must know, when I told you everything would disappear should I cross the barrier, I neglected to include that I, too, would disappear."
Marius sobbed into his fur and held him with all four limbs. "Then let me stay!"
The beast said nothing, and continued to hold him in a protective embrace. The roaring wind calmed, and the snow stopped falling. It was now so quiet that Marius could hear the thumping of the beast's heart.
"Let me stay," he reiterated in a whisper.
The beast rolled to one side and let him go. "Climb on my back."
Marius climbed up, and held tightly to his neck. "If I am to stay, I should set my horse free, and bring my things. I left them nearby."
The beast took them away from the chateau, and back toward the barrier. When he stopped, Marius slid down, looking for his golden eyes beneath the disheveled fur. He stroked the soft muzzle. "You will let me stay... won't you?"
"Marius... I will not allow you to imprison yourself for my sake."
"But this isn't a prison to me!" the boy cried. "And it's for my sake as much as yours. Don't you see that I love you and want to be yours? It's what you wanted!"
"It was selfish and wrong of me to ask such a thing of you."
"You cannot make me go," Marius charged onward, now haughty. "I'll only keep coming back."
"Then there is only one thing that can be done. I am sorry, my lovely boy."
The beast took a step back, and then, with a powerful kick of his rear paws, leaped at the barrier.
"No!" Marius screamed.
The word remained trapped in his throat as he hit the ground hard enough to nearly knock the wind from him. He lay sprawled in a drift of autumn leaves, with ferns and bare branches all around him, and not a trace of snow. Marius knew it was all gone now, because even the clothes had left along with the snow. He was sitting naked in the forest, softly weeping.
He gasped, and quieted. Turning toward the voice, Marius brushed aside a curtain of ferns and found a familiar pair of hazel eyes. The hair was in disarray, and the beard far from tidy, but otherwise it was the prince from his dream, just as naked, and no longer in chains.
They both crawled forward at once, grabbing for one another and embracing as they fought for breath. The prince was the first to let go, pulling back only to place both hands, hands he had sorely missed, upon Marius' smooth cheeks. His eyes streamed with tears.
"I never dared to hope... that this could happen," he gasped, and was overcome, sobbing as he let his head fall upon Marius' shoulder.
"Shh," Marius soothed, stroking his hair and back. "It's all going to be fine now. I'm here."
"They told me if I left, I would perish. All this time, all these years... I could have simply walked away!" His body trembled with anguish. "What worse torture could there be? Oh Marius... if you have ever thought yourself a fool, you are not so, not compared to me."
Marius comforted and rocked him. "But perhaps you could not have walked away, after all. Perhaps you needed a handsome boy to fall in love with you to break the curse."
The prince raised his head, took in the boy's smile, and grinned through his tears. "Oh, I should much prefer to believe that." He combed his fingers through Marius' long, golden hair, reacquainting himself with sensations long absent.
Lost in bliss, Marius yielded to his touch. He thought about asking the prince what had caused him to be so cruelly imprisoned, but decided it could wait. They had the rest of their lives for stories.
"Will you come now?" Marius whispered. "I have a horse, and supplies. Even clothes. We seem to both need them."
They looked down at one another, and helplessly laughed.
"You are anything but foolish, my lovely boy," the prince said, standing and extending a hand to him.
Marius stood, and continued to hold onto both of his hands as they stared at one another. "I still don't know your name."
The prince's cheeks darkened. "Ah... of course. I am Alain."
"Alain," Marius sighed.
Alain grinned. "It's beautiful beyond description to hear my name from your lips."
"Alain... I should very much like to kiss you."
Alain's smile widened, his eyes glinting with amusement. "Oh, is that allowed?"
Marius laughed, and it felt wonderful to do so. He shifted closer, until their bodies were nearly touching. "Who is here to tell us it isn't?"
Alain's lips were as soft and as sweet as Marius had dreamed, and he loved the tickle of the prince's beard on his chin, and the light fur against his chest.
"Now," Marius declared, "let's go have an adventure."