| The Beauty In The Beast
© K. G. McAbee, Artwork by Linnea Sinclair
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(Click Here For Printable Version) (May contains strong language and situations)
"Erik, my boy, I’m afraid that I’m in horrible trouble."
My father stood before me on the dirt floor of our humble cottage, wringing his hands as though he were the erring son quaking before me, the fierce and condemning father.
A log disintegrated in the hearth behind him, sending up a shower of sparks and a puff of angry blue-gray smoke. Simmering in a battered pot over the fire, the stew that I had made for supper sent out a pale but delicious odor that battled unsuccessfully with the smell of our two cows that lived on the other side of the wall.
"What is it, sir?" I asked, my heart in my throat, for I knew all too well my dear father’s long list of weaknesses.
Were we to lose our tiny cottage this time, perhaps, as we had already lost our big house, most of our land and all our livestock save the two aforementioned cows? Were the bailiffs after him, ready to do as they had threatened so often, lock him up in our village jail or, worse yet, send him to the capital and the great debtors’ prison that sprawled on its western side?
"Erik, my dear boy…"
I was finding his hand wringing rather irritating. "Yes, Father?" I hoped I didn’t sound as sharp as I was feeling.
"Well, my boy, you know that I have this little weakness…"
My poor father had a large and varied supply of them, as I’ve mentioned, none of which were cheap, all of which got him continually into trouble of one kind or another. He liked to drink, he liked to gamble, he liked to argue with little to back up his arguments, he liked to…but there, why go on? I loved him dearly but he was not a comfortable man with whom to live. I could hardly blame my two brothers for departing and leaving him in my hands—though oftentimes, in the dark reaches of the worrisome night, I did.
"I fear, my child, that I have been rash enough to make a promise that might be rather hard for us to keep…."
I sighed. "Not money, Father, I hope? You know we only have enough to pay our taxes, and I’d really hate to sell anything else."
Not that we had much left to sell. We had gotten rid of most of our old possessions when we’d sold our big house and moved to this hovel, save a few personal items and a dozen or so books.
A chill struck my heart.
"Father, we’re not going to have to sell our books, are we?" Though what those ragged old tomes would fetch in our tiny village, where few save myself could even read, I could not imagine.
"No, no, dearest boy, not at all! In fact, you may well find that you shall soon have all the books your heart desires!"
Well, for all the delightful images those words called up, I could hardly believe it.
"You’d best explain, Father," I said, trying to resign myself to this newest catastrophe. "But wait, you’re freezing. Sit down and warm yourself while I fix you some supper."
I bundled him into our best armchair—indeed, our only armchair—and filled him a bowl of stew. He took a bite or two until his tragic thoughts interfered with his meal. He set the bowl on the floor beside him and eyed me with a weak smile.
"My dearest Erik, my loyal son!"
I didn’t like the sound of this at all. I sighed. "You’d best tell me, Father…"
Well, the story was the same one that I’d been hearing for all of my twenty-some years—Father had played a ‘friendly’ game that wasn’t quite so friendly as he had imagined. He ended up owing a rather large sum of money. The same old story, but with one rather odd exception. This time Father had somehow managed to find someone to pay the sum for him. Of course, he was now indebted to this philanthropist—who turned out to be, to my surprise, the richest woman around. This woman, of whom I had never heard until now, lived in a huge old stone castle behind high forbidding walls, out in the forest that stretched threateningly between our village and the mountains. For a change, however, Father didn’t owe this woman money or land or livestock in repayment of his debt.
He owed her—me.
"What do you mean, she wants me to come and live with her?" I asked, aghast.
"Why, just that, my dear boy, but I assure you, I would never have agreed to her terms if I thought that it would be a bad thing for you. She—well, not her, exactly, as I’ve never actually spoken to her, but her major domo—anyway, this gentleman assures me that you will be treated like a member of the lady’s own family, with good food and clothing and books and everything you might desire…."
"Everything, Father?" I asked, concerned by the stricken look on his face.
"Well, she did just make one small request." My father sighed and shook his head, then wiped away a tear that trickled down his wrinkled cheek. "She doesn’t want you to come back here and visit."
Well, this was simply ridiculous! How could I possibly leave my poor father to fend for himself—fending, mind you, never having been one of his talents—and go gadding off to live in a castle?
Although the thought was strangely alluring, I must admit….
"Nonsense," I said, resolutely banishing the images that danced through my head. "We’ll just have to think of something else to offer her instead of me, that’s all."
But, regardless of intensive brain cudgeling on both our parts, we were unable to think of anything else at all to offer this woman in payment of my poor father’s debt of honor. And so, some three days later, I had all my scanty supply of clothes packed in an old saddlebag, four books that I could not bear to leave banded together with a stout leather strap, and was awaiting a conveyance on the front step of our house. My poor father sat just inside the door, and I could hear the occasional sniff as we each thought of my fate.
Since we lived on the outskirts of our village, we seldom had passers-by. But this morning, most of the village had turned out. They clustered about our shabby cottage, trying to look as if they had some business there and failing dismally.
"So, Master Erik," called one wag, "it’s off to seek your fortune, is it?"
"Aye, he’ll be too good for us now," replied another. "Won’t speak a word to us when he passes us in the street."
This weak sally called forth general mirth. And, since few of them had deigned to speak to me or my father since our reversals in fortune, I could not disagree. I had tried, when we’d first moved here after our estates had been sold to pay my father’s debts, to make some friends in the village. I reasoned that I’d be there for some time and did not wish to be lonely. But no one felt comfortable with me, I fear, since I had descended from the status of ‘young master’ to ‘neighbor’.
It had made my life a bit lonely, I’ll admit. Books are a pleasure and a delight, but when one has read and reread all he possesses, he’d like to at least have someone to discuss them with, you know.
The crowd grew larger, but there was no sign of anyone coming to fetch me. We’d had a letter the day before, stating—rather coldly, I thought—that we could expect a coach to appear at eight precisely, by the village clock. It was still some minutes before that time, but there was no sign of any conveyance in either direction of the dusty road.
Perhaps it won’t come after all, I hoped.
An old, old woman dressed in dusty gray leggings and a brown tunic, one toe peeking though a slit in her boot, sidled up to me where I sat on the stoop. She leaned down to me, a gap-toothed smile illuminating her face. Laying a withered finger against my cheek, she stroked it once and whispered, "Have a care, young sir. You’re a pretty boy, and that one in the forest eats pretty boys fer her breakfast. Aye, she’s a fearsome ugly beast what’s done it for a hunnerd years or more, as I heared from my old gran before me. Have a care." Then she gave me a pitying pat on the head and tottered away.
The village clock began to strike as I digested this startling bit of information. I looked around for the mad old woman, but the crowd had swallowed her.
"Well, no fine carriage for you, hey?" crowed our neighbor from across the way, a shabby man who worked in the livery stables. "I knowed it, mind you."
I was wondering just how it was that everyone in town knew our business when the clock counted its last stroke. The sound, a rusty clang, still hung in the air when—
A coach appeared in the dusty road before our cottage. There were a few cries of wonderment, an undercurrent of unease, and the entire group of villagers disappeared as quickly as they’d arrived.
I gulped at the sight that rose above me. A coach—and not just a coach, mind you, but one pulled by a matched team of four elegant blacks, each with one white plume rising from its noble head. The coach itself was also black, with a silver crest on the door and a coachman dressed in black, with a tall hat of silvery fur.
I peered up and down the road. No one. Nothing. And more uncomfortable still, no sign of any tracks in the dirt, in either direction.
But there before our door was the coach, in all its glory, solid and material and unable to be denied.
"My boy," whispered my father from inside our doorway, "I have a bad feeling about this."
Well, it matched my own, I will admit. I would have given anything to have called off this farce. But what could I do? Either I offered myself as payment for my father’s debt…or my father would doubtless end up in jail.
The coachman had not taken notice of our presence. He sat with regal hauteur, gazing over his team’s heads.
I cleared my throat, but was unable to think of anything to say, still being amazed at the coach’s appearance. At that instant, and as if my throat clearing had been a signal, a footman who’d been hidden until now jumped down from his perch at the rear of the coach. He trod forward on booted legs, bowed and said, "Master Erik?"
I nodded. I could not think of a thing to say.
"I am Germain, at your service, sir. If you are quite ready to depart?"
Things were moving at far too rapid a pace to suit me, but I had little choice in the matter. I managed to make a sort of strangled sound, which Germain took to be assent. He seized my saddlebag and bundle of books in one hand, turned and flung open the door of the coach with the other.
"Wait," I succeeded in producing a decipherable word at last, "I wish assurance that my father will be cared for in my, er, absence."
"Naturally, sir. It is only expected in one of your high character," replied Germain smoothly. "I was told to give you this."
He handed me a sheet of paper, folded and sealed with black wax. I noted that the seal was the same as the crest on the coach—a wolf, his head upraised at a sliver of moon—then tore it open.
You may be quite sure that your father will have the utmost in comforts during your absence.
Lady Arraine DuBois
Well, she might almost have read my mind, I thought uneasily. But before I could say another word I was bundled with polite ceremony into the coach; the door slammed hard behind me. I heard Germain take his place and the coachman crack his whip.
"Goodbye, my dearest boy!" shouted my father.
I leaned towards the window, in the process knocking against my bundle of books. I grabbed at it, placed it securely beside me on the seat, then looked out to window to catch a final glimpse of my father and tell him to take care.
Our cottage was not there.
Now mind you, I had felt no sensation of movement, had not seen or experienced any sign that we had gone a step past our cottage. But no cottage was outside the window, nor village, nor dusty road.
What was outside quite took my breath away.
Gates of rusted iron towered towards the clouds. Stone walls stretched on either side as far as my eye could see. A cobbled road lay beneath the coach.
With a low growling snarl like an angry beast, the gates opened, though I could not see what opened them.
This time, I felt the coach move as we proceeded down a tree-lined passage towards an invisible goal. I found myself clutching my bundle of books to my breast as if it had been a lifeline. I looked at my hands, noted a tiny scar at the base of my right thumb—received at my first experience of chopping kindling—and felt some tiny measure of reassurance. I was still me, it was apparent, but I was not too sure of the world around me.
The coach pulled to a smooth stop and I dared a look out the window.
A grand castellated manor house, far larger than the one I’d spent my earlier life in, with a tower at each corner, reared itself up four stories to glare down at me. I had the uneasy impression that it was just biding its time before it squashed me.
Germain appeared at the door to the coach, flung it open, seized the bundle from my unresisting hands, gathered up the saddlebag and ushered me down.
"Well come, Master Erik, well come indeed," he murmured as he herded me towards the tall double doors, the right one of which was opening before us. "We are all right glad to have you here."
The door opened with a tiny snarl, the baby brother to the one the gates had made. I mounted the five steps to the door, my heart bouncing about most distractingly within my chest. I stood staring at the age-blackened wood of the door, carved across its entire expanse, though I had neither the time nor the inclination to examine it more closely. Indeed, I had but an instant to recognize in the center of it the same crest that the coach bore, before the door swung fully open.
A short squat woman, dressed in black and silver livery, stood within. This was not, I could see, my…hostess? Warder? Whatever I was to call her.
"Well come, Master Erik," said the woman. There was no smile on her swarthy face, no welcoming look in her eyes to match her words. "I am Marta. Will you come inside, sir?"
I stepped over the threshold. Germain followed me inside.
As the woman was pushing the door to, I glanced outside.
The coach and horses were no longer there.
As the latch of the door snicked to, it made a sound like a bitter laugh.
* * *
I looked around the room Marta had said was mine. Tall ceilings arched above me, painted a somber gray, picked out here and there with dark red. The walls were swathed with thick drapery, a matching red that reminded me, in my current state, of dried blood. A massive bed occupied the wall opposite a long bank of windows; a huge desk stood brooding in a corner, and two deep chairs sat before a crackling blaze in a fireplace that would have engulfed half our tiny cottage.
But there was one bright spot in the silent room. An entire wall was filled, from floor to ceiling, with shelf after glorious shelf of books.
"Come," I said aloud—then jumped at the sound of my own voice. Shaking my head at my foolish reaction, I began again, even louder, "Come. I shall be comfortable, it’s clear. And I shan’t lack for books, so my poor dear father was right on that count, at least."
At the thought of my father, left alone and unhappy without me, my spirits came near to failing. But I gave myself a shake, told myself that it was no good dwelling on things I could not change, and walked over to investigate the books.
Well. If I had had the run of the king’s library, and been told to take what I wished, I could not have chosen more to my liking. Rows of geography and travel, the literature of several countries, biographies and histories…it was an embarrassment of riches. I ran appreciative fingers over the rich leather bindings, breathed in their luscious smell, took a book down at random for closer observation. It was a biography of Sir Riccardo Bertone, a famous traveler who had discovered the source of the great river Nil, which originated deep in the jungles of the island of Aphricanus. I turned page after page, almost salivating as I caught a word here and there.
"A book lover, I see."
I turned. My heart was doing its old darting about and I fear my mouth hung open.
A woman stood just inside the door to my room.
A woman, but such a woman I had never seen. She was tall and sleek; this much was obvious from the close-fitting black breeches and high-necked silk shirt that covered her from chin to the tops of gleaming boots. Glossy hair as pale as moonlight billowed about her face.
Or where her face should have been, that is. If face she had—and in my present state I would not have bet my life upon it—if face she had, I could not see it.
She wore a silver mask.
A mask, cold and rigid, inhuman in its beauty, frightening in its purity. Static, quiescent, yet somehow dancing and burgeoning with life.
That life came not from the mask itself, but from the woman’s eyes, eyes that glinted like emeralds through holes in the mask.
Her eyes, burning like tiny green fires, were all that could be seen of her face.
At once, the old woman’s words came back to me. A fearsome ugly beast that ate young men for breakfast. That old woman was mad, no doubt about it…but why did this apparition wear a mask, then?
I realized that I was staring, that she had asked me a question to which I had not replied, that I stood there with my mouth hanging open. I had no doubt that she was my…what? Hostess? Keeper?
"Uh…yes. I love books," I managed to gasp out at last.
A nod. The shadows of the room—When had the room become shadowed, I wondered vaguely?—danced over that silvery surface as though they had found a home. Behind me, the fire popped and crackled in the huge fireplace, but no glints of ruddy light broached the pristine silver mask. No, only shadows kept company on its planes of dull gray-white.
"Good," she said, and for the first time I noticed that her voice, instead of sounding muffled by the mask, was instead silvery clear. "I have not had the pleasure of entertaining a guest before who shared my love of books. We shall be friends. I am Arraine DuBois." She gave a short bow, a mere nod of her masked head.
I answered her bow with a deeper one of my own. "Erik Linhoevre, at your service, my lady."
Was it my imagination, or did I see a smile curve that impassive mask? I shook my head at my own fancies.
But the mask had a smile indeed. I could see it now, a tiny thing lifting one carved corner. Odd that I had not noticed it before.
"I suspect that you must be wondering why you are here?"
I nodded. "You must admit, my lady, that this farce is not the most common way to repay a debt."
"Debt," she said, and I would swear that the smile on the mask was gone. "Debt? Is that how…? Ah, yes, your…father owes me money, does he not?"
"He does." Her dismissive tone irritated me at once—or was it my fear that expressed itself so? "As you know quite well, I am sure. But why you have decided to be repaid in this odd fashion, I cannot understand."
"And you are not simply a man who is lost in his books and his fancies, are you? You like to understand everything that goes on about you, I take it?"
"I do," I said; then I remembered the strange things that had gone on about me all that day, which I had perforce to accept as they happened. "That is, I prefer to…I mean…."
I broke off in confusion. I could feel my face burning. I turned away and faced the fire, the book I had forgotten until that instant once more heavy in my hand. I took several deep breaths. It would not do to anger this woman with expressions of my discomfort, not at least until I had found out exactly what her plans for me were.
"I confess that strange things, for which I have no explanation, have occurred today. But you cannot think that I will simply—" I said, turning to face her, a stiff smile plastered on my face.
"I think that you will live here, in as much comfort as I can provide, and keep me company when I wish it," the lady said. There was no emotion in her voice. "That is what I think."
"When you wish it?" My smile was frozen to my face.
"Is that too much to ask, in payment of this ‘debt’ of yours?" Now her voice was cool and amused and her eyes were shards of emerald set in silver.
I turned away from her, dismissed that false smile from my lips, and strove to control my rising anger—or was it anger at all? "No, it is not," I admitted. "In fact, some might think it too little, in view of the amount of money involved. If you—" I turned back yet again, my anger in check, not wishing to offend her on our first meeting.
Arraine DuBois no longer stood inside the room.
The door was closed. It had been closed, so far as I knew, since it had shut behind me on my first entering this room.
But the woman had been there. The image of her mask was burned on my eyes, and I could still feel the heat of the anger her tone and her words had engendered within my breast.
"Well," I said aloud, feeling and sounding as helpless as I was. I collapsed into an armchair "This is going to be interesting."
* * *
This set the pattern of the succeeding days. I would be in my bedroom, or in the library, or on the verandah, or in the snug sitting room where I was served my meals, just off the library—and Arraine DuBois would appear when my eyes were somewhere else, or my back was turned. She would inevitably make me angry in some way, then disappear.
Other that this, I had the run of the mansion, servants who attended to my every need, and the books in my room were but a fraction of those in the rest of the house. Meals were plentiful and delightful, my old clothes disappeared my first night there and were never seen again, replaced by rich and elegant attire, and I had nothing to do but what pleased me—so long as I did not try to go beyond the high stone walls that encircled the premises.
This I had attempted on the next morning after I had made the acquaintance of Arraine DuBois. I had breakfasted both well and alone, and had wandered out of the sitting room onto the verandah. The gardens that encircled the manor were lush and fragrant, containing many plants that I had never seen, or that I had read about and would not have believed could live in our clime. Heavy vines bearing huge red blossoms, their odor a heady mixture of perfume and rot, were intertwined and jumbled across trees and bushes, while some spots were inexplicably bare.
I was going over the few words I had exchanged with my hostess the evening before as I walked along an overgrown gravel path that twisted and turned through the gardens. I took turnings without thought, without regard as to where they were leading me, passing statues of strange mythical beasts and oddly deformed beings, all green with moss. The way became more and more overgrown, the pathway rutted and cluttered with stones.
At last I reached an end to the path. Before me reared a massive wall of dry stacked stone, reaching far above my head and, like the statues, green with moss and mold. I eyed it absently for a time, my head cocked to one side.
"Your pardon, Master Erik."
Startled, I turned. Behind me in the shade of a huge oak stood Germain, a subservient smile on his face, his black livery blending with the shadows.
"Germain," I said weakly.
"At your service, sir." He gave a deep bow.
"Really, you people have to start making more noise, or I shall die of apoplexy," I said.
"Oh, surely not, sir," came his smooth reply. "Why, a gentleman of your age and habits will live for many a long year yet."
For some reason, this did not give me the most comforting of feelings.
"Yes, no doubt," I replied. "But you must admit, it can be a bit, er, surprising to have someone pop up and speak when you think you’re alone."
"Indeed, sir? Is any of us ever really alone, sir?" he asked.
"Well, I suppose if you wish to get metaphysical about it, one might say that we are not. But I would like to believe that, if I think I am alone, I am. Privacy, you understand, Germain; privacy."
"Yes, sir. Will you return to the house now, sir?"
"Why should I? I’ve only just left. And if you and Marta are going to feed me every day as you have so far, I shall need a great deal of exercise," I said with a smile, hoping to call some sort of response from the imperturbable Germain.
"Indeed, sir. There is a lovely walk this way…" he motioned to my left, "…and an even better one that way…" to my right, "and of course, others. But this is not, perhaps, the best way to go. As you have no doubt noticed, the path is not cared for, and the wall here is unstable."
Unstable? I turned to look. Yes, there were some fallen stones, and a statue of a wolf suckling her litter had been broken in two by a flat rock that must have fallen from the top of the wall.
"Very well, Germain," I sighed. "Let us return by one of these pleasant walks of yours."
"Sir," he said.
I proceeded off to my right, turned to ask him a question—and he was no longer there.
"Really," I said in some irritation, "people here are most extraordinary."
* * *
One evening during my second week at the manor, after a day spent exploring some portion of the grounds, I was ravenous. A particularly good supper was set before me by Marta, and Germain refilled my wine glass much more often than I was accustomed. I then retired to the huge library and selected a book from the shelves, seating myself in one of the two chairs that flanked the fireplace. I soon found myself nodding over my book before the clock struck nine.
I sat up straight in my chair, stretched my arms and came near to dislocating my jaw with a massive yawn.
"A busy day?"
I started. My book fell from my lap to the hearthrug.
Arraine DuBois sat in the chair opposite me.
"Uh…yes," I said, determined that I would not show how her sudden appearance startled me. Really, one would think that I’d be used to it by now. "And yours?"
"Not so busy," she said.
She was comfortably settled in the chair, her long booted legs stretched out before her, dressed in her usual plain black clothing. She looked as though she had been there for some time, and I wondered if I had been dozing.
"Er…well," I replied.
There was silence for a time as I scouted about for something to discuss. Then I ventured to remark, "You have a magnificent library. You must truly love books as much as I do."
"Yes. One must have something to love." Arraine DuBois was deep in the wing-backed chair, but the firelight limned her mask. Tonight I could detect no smile on its cold impassive surface.
"You must read a great deal?" I asked, fighting down what felt like panic.
"I do. It is one pleasure that never fails."
"Yes," I cried, glad to know that we shared common passion, for I had never met her in the library before and was beginning to think she did not care for books as much as she had said, "yes indeed! When my poor father lost everything and we had to move to the cottage, the only thing I missed was our library. I was only able to save a few books from the estate sale, but those few became my solace in my loneliness."
"Solace," she murmured. "Yes. And loneliness needs solace, does it not?"
"It does," and I did not think she was still talking about books, "it does. But for all my love of reading, sometimes I pine for someone with whom to talk of what I’ve read, to discuss and argue, to wonder over ancient times and foreign lands."
"Do you think that is why I’ve brought you here?" she asked, and I will swear that her mask was smiling now. "To chat of an evening beside the fire, talking of distant lands and strange beasts?"
"You must understand that I have no explanation of your actions," I said, a strange excitement building in my breast. "Why did you have me brought here?"
"Why, because your father owes me money. Is that not the reason, the only reason? What else could there be?"
Now the mask had lost its smile. Instead it snarled at me from the dimness of the depths of her chair. I was reminded again of the words of that strange old woman who had whispered in my ear.
"Perhaps you’ve brought me here to eat me for your breakfast," I muttered with a weak laugh that died a’borning. "Perhaps you’re fattening me up, with all this wonderful food, and keeping me chained to your wonderful library so I shan’t grow tough and muscular."
She said nothing for so long I wondered if she’d heard my foolish words. Then:
"Where did you hear such nonsense?" Her voice was icy as a winter’s morn.
"Well, what can you expect me to think?" I almost shouted. "What, am I to ignore the magical things that are always happening here? What are you? What is this place? Am I asleep, dreaming? Are you spirit, or are you flesh?"
"I am despair."
There was such pain in her whispering voice that at once I was sorry I had spoken so; I would have given worlds to call back my thoughtless words. But they, wild animals, had escaped the prison of my tongue, and I was helpless to restrain them.
"I regret that I have pained you," I began awkwardly. "I would that we were friends, and that my stay here be a pleasure for us both."
Arraine DuBois rose to her feet. As tall as I, she towered over me in my chair.
"No, Master Linhoevre," she said, and I would swear that her mask was twisted in a grimace of pain. "I fear that your visit here will be the death of one of us."
Then she stalked from the room.
If my thoughts had not been in such turmoil, I might have been happy that, at least for once, I had seen her leave the room instead of simply disappear when my back was turned.
* * *
Despair, Arraine DuBois had named herself.
I could not understand how or why she said such a thing. I could not…but I wondered mightily.
Day followed day, one much like another. I read, I walked, I wandered the house and grounds, I spoke with Marta and with Germain.
And I thought of my poor father.
How was he coping, this least coping of men? Did he miss me, did he think of me in the endless reaches of the night?
At last, I knew what I must do.
That evening, I waited with growing impatience for the nightly visit by Arraine DuBois. The library was warm and inviting, the books beamed down on me like old friends, but I ignored them as I awaited her nightly appearance.
"You are troubled?"
There she was, sitting in the chair opposite me; she’d materialized between two blinks of an eye. But I did not even start, so used to her sudden appearances had I become.
"Yes, I am. I’m worried about my father."
"He is well. He has all that he could wish."
"All but someone who loves him," I snapped. "All but that, and what is everything else in all the world, when love is missing?"
Arraine sat, her mask a silver pain. "That is…true, Master Linhoevre. But what of your promise? To stay here, to never see him again…will you break your word?"
I shook my head. "Is it a word that should be kept, forced from me as it was?"
"Sometimes we are forced into things that we do not wish, but these things become paramount in our lives. We are not always given a choice."
I fell to my knees before her, grasped her hands in my own. Her fingers lay icy and unresponsive within mine. I thought I heard her gasp, but I must have been mistaken.
"Please," I begged, "please let me see that my father is well, wants for nothing. Please, let me see him but once, and I will never ask you again."
I watched her emerald eyes, peering down at me from their silver prison. Was it my imagination, or did they begin to take on a crimson glow, as if the firelight was taking up home there?
"No!" shouted Arraine DuBois, jerking her hands from mine and springing to her feet; her voice was harsh and bitter. "No! Why should you have your heart’s desire? Why should you and not…."
I scrambled to my feet, held out a placating hand, but she pushed me aside and ran from the room.
* * *
Well, as you might imagine, I was more than a little troubled as I made my lonely way up to my bedchamber. I shut the door behind me and thought for a brief instant of locking it, but even if I had had a key, there was no keyhole. I glanced around for something to block it, then shrugged my shoulders and gave a bitter laugh.
Of what use would that be, in a house where folk appeared and disappeared at will? I knew, I could not help but know, that strange forces were at large in this house, inexplicable powers that were impossible for me to withstand. If I were destined to die—as what Arraine had once said to me did appear to indicate—then a barricaded door would be no hindrance to approaching death.
I removed my boots, flung myself onto the bed without undressing and closed my eyes, thoughts swirling across my tired mind. The image of that strange silver mask changing its expression, of emerald eyes turning crimson, haunted me.
I must have fallen asleep almost at once. The effects of a busy day, a heavy meal and more wine than usual negated my mental turmoil, though I had been convinced that I would toss and turn for hours.
But I knew I was asleep, for I began to dream.
That it was a dream, I did not doubt. My mind felt disassociated from my body, floating invisibly above it. I watched in calm concentration as my body rose and stalked on stockinged feet to the shelves of books that made up one side of my room. Unerringly, my hands reached out and plucked half a dozen dusty tomes from a low shelf. I down from the heights as my hands stacked the books on a table, reading with no difficulty the titles. They were all collections of sermons; not my usual reading pleasure, so I had not examined them in my time there. Then I watched as my body turned to the now empty shelf, reached a hand in and scrabbled across the wall behind where the books had rested.
A tiny click…and a section of the bookcase slid out. An opening wide enough to slip through appeared, and I floated after my body as it disappeared into dimness.
But the dim light was an illusion. As the section of bookcase swung to behind, I could see, though there was no apparent source of light, a stone stairway twisting out of sight. My body began the journey downward as if it took the same path every day. I followed, floating just above.
I thought that this was without a doubt the most amazing dream I’d ever had….
The stairs took a final turn and ended at an ancient carved door. My hand reached out to open it and I walked inside.
The huge room must have once been the dungeons of Arraine DuBois’s manor. Rusty chains hung from the sweating walls, and I saw an Iron Maiden pushed against one wall of the huge rectangular chamber. Other devices with which I was unfamiliar stood here and there; I was not interested in studying them, for I feared what would now happen.
In the center of the room was an iron brazier full of coals. In my present state of what I can only call ‘disembodiment’, I could feel neither heat nor cold. But I could see the waves of heat rising from the fire, and the iron bowl glowed crimson. I watched, aghast, as my body walked towards this brazier and seated itself beside it in a straight chair.
For a time, nothing happened. I found I had the power to flit about and, oddly enough, through things, feeling and touching nothing. I searched the vast chamber, finding other unpleasantnesses that I will not discuss. But I could find no other inhabitant.
I returned to my body, which was sitting at ease in the chair.
The word echoed through me, setting up vibrations that almost made me lose my grip on consciousness. My body obeyed, standing on stockinged feet—too near the brazier to suit me.
I looked around. I could see no one who could have uttered the word. I dove towards my body, desperate to enter it and awaken from this dream before…I do not know what I thought, what I believed might happen. But I wanted to awaken more than anything.
Then, the oddest of a series of oddities occurred. Where nothingness was a heartbeat before, now stood the tall slender figure of a woman dressed in inky black, with silvery hair billowing down her back. It was, it could only be…Arraine DuBois.
But she was without her mask.
Her face…her face was the stuff of nightmares. The lower half projected forward like the muzzle of some animal, with the mouth hanging open to display long, sharp, pointed teeth. A thin stream of silvery drool hung from the corner of that mouth, which was topped with two slits for a nose. Her eyes were huge and round, as red as the coals in the brazier; they crackled with a lust for blood.
My uninhabited body stood as if this hideous creature was not even there. I watched in horror as she stalked towards it, slavering in anticipation. I imagined those sharp white teeth sinking into my throat, tearing it out as I watched in my helpless, wraithlike state.
I thought that it was my ghostly presence that cried out, my voice made audible in my terror at the death that was stalking me.
But it was not.
"No. I will not allow it."
Another form stalked forward from nothingness. This form was, to my eyes, the same as the first, that is, Arraine DuBois. Tall, lean, dressed in black, silvery hair, and she too wore no mask.
But the difference in the two faces…
This woman, whoever she was, had the face of a fallen angel. Straight nose, square jaw, high cheekbones, broad forehead; she was perfection in visage. And her eyes were not the ravening red of Arraine DuBois, but as crystal green as a mountain lake.
Green eyes…Arraine DuBois had green eyes, I remembered.
Were they both Arraine DuBois? I was dreaming, after all….
"You have no choice in the matter," spat the first Arraine, tearing her gaze from my helpless body and turning to face the new arrival; she moved like a wolf about to strike. "It is my turn. You had the last one."
"Yes, I did," said the other, the fallen angel. "For a time. Until you murdered him."
"Why, I believe I did, did I not? Yes, I remember. He was sweet and tender. His juices were like nectar running down my throat."
"This one you shall not have," said the second woman. "I will not allow it, not this time, not ever again."
"You know the bargain," laughed the other, her eyes spitting red flames. "If you refuse, then I am the winner. I shall take my prey wherever I wish it. None shall be safe from me."
"Yes, I know the bargain. But there is a way…."
"You would not dare!"
The two sprang at each other, locked hands about each other’s throat. They slashed at each other with tooth and nail, tore a hand free to strike, tripped and tumbled about on the floor. In the tumult, they slammed against the brazier, tilting it over. The coals scattered across the stone flaggings. I watched as once bounced off my stockinged foot…
I sat up in bed. Outside my window a bird was offering a cheerful greeting to the dawn.
My heart was pounding. I shook my head with a weak laugh and promised myself no more overindulgence in wine at supper.
I flung the covers off.
I was fully dressed except for my boots. My stockings were filthy—and one had a hole burnt into it.
* * *
"What am I to do? What am I to do?" I repeated this meaningless phrase as I paced back and forth before my bedchamber windows. Meaningless, I knew, for there was no way for me to escape this place.
Arraine DuBois was indeed my captor, my jailer. But who—what—was that other creature that looked so much like Arraine? Was it dead? Were they both dead? Had they torn each other to bits last night? Or would one greet me during the day, not knowing that I remembered my last trip to the dungeons?
My last trip, but not my first one, I knew.
I calmed at last, changed my clothing and washed my face and hands. As I was doing the last, a gong sounded. Breakfast.
Well, I decided, I might as well die full as hungry. And I had other plans than breakfast. The knife that always lay beside my plate was long and sharp.
The meal was as excellent as usual. I partook of every dish that Marta set before me, praising her lavishly. Her swarthy face flowed at my words and I thought I could even detect a blush. So pleased was she that I did not believe she noticed the large silver knife I hid under my jacket….
I was determined that I would not go easily into that creature’s maw if it still lived; not if I could help it. I knew, from my dream, how to reach its lair and if it had been successful in the fight, I would do my best to destroy it.
And if the real Arraine DuBois lived? What would I do then?
I remembered that fallen angel face of hers, I remembered her kindness to me, I remembered her love of books, so like my own.
I remembered her sadness.
If the creature that had mimicked her form and voice had murdered Arraine DuBois, then I would do my best to kill it before it killed me.
If Arraine Dubois still lived, I would tell her that I would remain by her side as long as she wished it. For the moment I had seen her face, I had loved her.
No. That is a lie. I had loved her long before.
Finally that endless meal was over. I stood up, careful to conceal the knife even though Marta was not in the room. I made my careful way back up the stairs to my bedchamber. The bed was smoothed; my disordered clothing that I had flung on a chair was gone.
I closed the door behind me and put a high-backed chair against it.
If that creature was still alive, I didn’t want it loose in the house.
Then I walked over to the bookcase and reached for the books that hid the latch.
I will not pretend that my heart was not racing, my hands shaking. I was, not to point too fine a point on it, terrified. But I would not allow Arraine DuBois’s brave sacrifice go in vain.
For that was what it must have been, I knew. Arraine had offered her life to save mine. Somehow she had whisked me back inside my sleeping body and away, while she fought for her life against that evil creature.
I found the latch and the secret door swung open before me.
Clutching the silver knife, I started down the stairway.
* * *
The journey was not as easy as it had been before. The stairs were single slabs of rough stone, slippery with condensate. Torches, magical they must have been, were burning in sconces on the walls; they shed a flickering light that made the shadows menacing. Still, I seized one and proceeded downward.
At the bottom, the carven door stood open. I walked inside the dungeon, holding my torch high above my head; the knife was in my other hand.
There was the Iron Maiden; the chains still hung from rusty bolts. I walked forward, my eyes trying to be everywhere at once.
In the center of the vast room, just as I remembered it, stood a brazier—tossed over on its side, with cold ashes strewn about it. The chair where my unresisting body had sat was overturned as well.
I looked about me.
No blood. No ravaged bodies. Nothing.
But wait. There, against the wall, crouched a shadowy figure.
I darted forward, knelt down.
Arraine DuBois, her silver mask covering that angelic face, one sleeve torn away to reveal a bloody gash that reached from shoulder to wrist, leaned on the stone wall. Still, silent, eyes closed…
What if it were not Arraine, but the other? What if, when those closed eyes opened, a ruby glare shone through the silver mask?
I looked wildly around for something with which to subdue her. I saw a manacle at the end of a heavy chain, still attached to a stout iron bolt in the wall. I seized it and clamped it tight about her undamaged wrist.
Then I jerked the mask away.
A seraph face, serene and untroubled.
I shook Arraine, trying not to disturb her injured arm. Her eyes opened….
Horror stared out at me from their emerald depths.
I drew back as her perfect lips parted and she said: "Erik…I tried to save you, my darling…but she is too strong. Run, run while you can."
Then she blinked and those emerald eyes began to darken, even as her angelic features twisted and mutated. From flawless nose and perfect lips, nightmares bubbled forth.
She, this other, seized my wrist with her unbound hand.
"Erik," she sneered, spewing spittle on me from her slavering slit of a mouth, "she tried to keep you from me. But she failed, as she has always failed. Now you are mine, as you were destined to be."
I jerked away, scuttling like a rat from her ravening mouth, her grasping, tearing hand. She leaped after me—only to be caught up short by the chain that bound her wrist.
A howl of dismay echoed through the high chamber, bouncing off the walls, rattling the fearful machines of torture and pain.
"No! No, I tell you! This cannot be—you cannot know the secret! You cannot know how to keep me from you. None would dare to tell you…."
I ran from the chamber as though death were at my heels.
* * *
I close my strange story now. It has been four score and eleven years since I first came to the house of Arraine DuBois as payment for my father’s debt. I have lived far beyond the normal span of mortals, kept alive and seemingly young by the magics that inhabited that house of doom and delight. But fledgling though I still appear, I feel my years like a massive burden and I know that my time approaches. I leave these notes for any who might follow me, so that they will know of the precious—and perilous—inhabitant in the dungeons of the castle of the wolf in the wood.
Arraine and I have loved each other fiercely, passionately and hopelessly, for all these weary years. She, kept alive in torment by the curse that fell upon her as a young woman, has remained chained in the dungeons since that horrible and wonderful night when I first saw the two sides of her nature. Waited on by Germain and Marta—who do not change, and I dare not ask of them why—she no longer needs the silver mask to hide her from my adoring gaze. We have loved each other, as I have said….
But we have not dared to touch.
For my touch, in love and desire, calls up that other Arraine, the ravening beast that would tear me apart with glee. And when my dying body would be lying in its own blood, gasping for a final breath, that horror would leave and Arraine would return, to cradle me in her arms and despise herself for causing my death.
So Arraine and I have loved from a distance. A little distance, to be sure, separated us…but the length of an arm. But it might well have been an ocean that coursed between our longing hearts.
Still, we have had our compensations. The old dungeons were transformed into pleasant chambers and all our beloved books surrounded us. We could talk, we could smile, we could banter, we could spend countless hours together…and we have. We have done all that lovers can and could do, from time immemorial.
But now, the magics are dying around us and we know our time is growing close. We can only hope, only believe, that our long purgatory is over and that we will awaken in some better place, where a kiss, a touch, will not destroy us.
We can only hope.[ end ]
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