Peter, his three daughters, and two sons in law, lived on a small horse ranch bordered on three sides by an old growth forest. They had once lived in the city, but a change in their fortunes brought them to this place just outside the small town of Bramble. Violet, the youngest daughter, and her husband Stephen lived in what had been the bunkhouse. Daisy, the middle daughter, and her husband Gabe, lived in a converted outbuilding. Lilly, the oldest daughter, still lived in the main house with Peter.
Violet, though not intentionally mean, was rather dismissive of the rest of the family. She was the most beautiful of the sisters with coal black hair tumbling in perfect ringlets to just below her shoulders. Her eyes were the exact shade of her namesake flower. She was barely over five feet tall but her body was perfectly proportioned. Her waist was tiny, her hips were gently flared and her breasts were just slightly more than her husband could take into his mouth. Her bottom lip was a little fuller than its mate, seeming to pout. She was accomplished at everyday household tasks such as cooking, cleaning, and mending, but she never set foot outside if she could help it. Whatever her faults, her husband adored her. Every spare cent from their share of the ranch's profits he spent buying her some little bauble or trinket just to see her face light up with pleasure.
Daisy was as pretty as her name with light golden blond hair that fell in a smooth waterfall to her waist when she took it down to wash and brush it. Normally though, she kept in on two long braids wrapped like a crown around her head. Her eyes were the clear blue of a spring sky and her nose had a faint dusting of freckles. Her mouth was almost too wide for her oval face but she always seemed to be smiling. She was even more accomplished at housekeeping chores than Violet and kept both her and her father's homes spotless. She had a willowy figure. She was a few inches taller than her younger sister but her hips were more slender and her breasts were so small as to not need a corset. She and Gabe and been married since the day she turned eighteen, six years ago, but despite trying to have children they had resigned themselves to caring for their horses, dogs, and cats as substitutes.
Lilly was prettier than Daisy and didn't like staying indoors much. Only if the weather was horrible and she could curl up in her favorite chair by the fire with a good gothic novel did she ever enjoy being inside. Her hair was a glossy brown with subtle coppery highlights but instead of perfect ringlets or tame smoothness, it was uncontrollably wavy. Though, thankfully, it didn't often get very tangled, she had no idea what to do with it. It fell down her back and teased her hips when it was loose but she usually just tied it up in a tail and braided it. She liked to wear a vest over her shirt and kept her braid under the vest so it wouldn't get in the way of her chores. Her eyes were some indeterminate shade of either green, blue, or grey, depending on what mood she was in or what color shirt she was wearing. Her figure was what Daisy called 'generous' and what Violet called 'plump.' Her hips, while not overly wide, were just a little curvier than the average village woman's. Her belly required a corset to make it flat and her breasts, though not huge, overfilled her hands when she cupped them, and her hands were large for a woman's.
Peter was a loving father to all five of the younger people living with him. His health had been failing for years so he wasn't able to do the farm work like he used to. Daisy took care of him during the day while Lilly took over his share of the chores. These were usually helping the three hired girls from the village in the garden or gathering firewood from the fringes of the forest. The village girls were so uneasy about going into the woods, even by a few feet, that after a few weeks into every winter Lilly just told them to push the hand cart she would load from a couple of yards out of the trees back to the house. She loaded her horse's cart herself. This task usually took all day and had to be done every three or four days. Her brothers in law were too busy taking care of their dozen Morgan horses to also do all of the ordinary chores.
The village girls told Lilly that a Beast lived in a castle in the middle of the forest. They could never agree on what this Beast looked like. Some said he resembled a bull, some said a boar, some said a wolf, some said a wild cat. They all agreed he must have a ravenous appetite because hunters had never been able to find any game in his woods, not even such small things as birds or rabbits. They also agreed that the Beast must be immortal. Their grandfathers had told them tales of him and their grandfather's grandfathers had in turn been the ones to tell them. It was speculated that the Beast may have been a man once but if so it had been so long that his beast's nature had surely taken over the man's.
Lilly wasn't one to believe in tales but something about the towering black pine and fir trees sent shivers racing up her spine and gooseflesh springing up on her arms. She was always careful to keep the farmhouse in sight when she gathered deadfall for firewood.
The first day of August dawned like any other. Lilly was up before dawn and out the door as the first rays of the sun lightened the eastern sky. Daisy was going into the house as Lilly was leaving. She would make breakfast for the family. Lilly had just finished cleaning her stallion's stall when she heard Daisy scream. She dropped everything and ran back to the house. Gabe, Stephen, and even Violet were also running. Being closest and not hampered by long skirts, Lilly was first to burst in the kitchen door.
"Daisy!" she called out.
"In here," came the barely audible reply. Her voice came from the direction of their father's bedroom.
"What's wrong?" Lilly asked as she hurried down the hall and into Peter's room. What she saw made her stop in her tracks. She vaguely heard Gabe call out for Daisy. Daisy ran into his arms weeping, giving Lilly a clearer view of Peter's bed. She walked dazedly toward the still figure that had once been her father. Stephen and Violet arrived just then. Violet took one glimpse and let out a wail of grief.
Peter was lying on his back with his hands folded carefully across his chest. He almost looked like he was posing except that his chest didn't rise or fall with breathing. His face, while serene, was an ashy grey. When Lilly reached out to touch his hand, it was ice cold and stiff. She turned to the rest of her family.
"We need to call the minister," she said. Violet and Daisy just huddled in their husband's arms and sobbed. Stephen and Gabe were fully occupied by their wives so Lilly went to the study herself to use the rotary phone Peter had gotten a year ago. He'd been so proud the day he brought it home. The phone company had laid the lines to their house just the week before. They were one of only a handful of families in or around the village that had a phone. Thankfully, the minister was one of the few who had one so Lilly didn't have to call a neighbor and wait while they fetched the minister and he called her back.
She made the call as brief as she could then returned to her family. When she left the study she heard their voices coming from the living room. When she appeared in the doorway, the room fell silent. She didn't walk into the room; she knew what they'd been talking about.
"Remember what Father told us?" asked Violet. "When he died, the one of us who was married and had the most children would live in the house."
"That leaves me out," said Daisy. "I know I probably won't have any and that big house would seem too empty with just me and Gabe."
"And since I'm not married and have no prospects I'll have to move out," said Lilly quietly.
"Well it's only fair," said Stephen. "Violet and I decided a few weeks ago to start our family and the little house we have now won't be big enough."
"We'll let you stay here for a little while, Lilly," said Violet. "Long enough for us to move all our things out of our house so you can move into it."
"I won't need much time to get my things together," said Lilly quietly. "I'll be ready to move out as soon as you have everything you want out of your house. Father always wanted the big house filled with children. Seems like he's going to get his wish."
She turned and went upstairs to her bedroom. It was her favorite room in the house. It faced west and had a large window with a seat in the south west corner. She liked to sit there and read on the rare summer evenings she got all the chores done before dark. She looked around at thirty year's worth of possessions. There wasn't much she wanted to take with her. She didn't have much. A few clothes, a few books, multiple hair ties, and a single piece of jewelry were all she owned.
The piece of jewelry was a heavy pendant of dark gold. Its chain was delicate but sturdy, not getting tangled or knotted no matter how many times it was shuffled around Lilly's drawer as she removed or replaced her clothes. The pendant itself was oval in shape, about the size of a half dollar. It had the strangest image in relief on the face of it. It was of a Beast walking upright like a man, with the clawed feet of a wolf, and short horns with a slight curve just above its ears. Though its ears had the same placement as a human's they were sharply pointed and looked rather wolfish. Its face was flat and almost human looking but had high cheekbones that gave it a slightly feline appearance. Lilly had looked at it under a magnifying glass and could see the very tips of upper and lower canines just touching its lips. The Beast was clothed like a human but what she could see of its body was completely covered in shaggy fur.
Even more strange than the image on the pendant was where Lilly had found it. She'd found it in the forest. She'd been gathering firewood all day, having to go deeper into the woods than usual; winter was almost over and she'd already picked up all the deadfall from the fringes. She was turning to carry her last armload to her horse's cart when a stray shaft of sunlight managed to pierce the thick canopy. The light reflected off something shiny hanging from the rough bark of one of the pines. Having what her family called an insatiable curiosity, she felt drawn to whatever it was. She discovered that it was a gold pendant, hanging within easy reach. She'd looked around to see if she could catch a glimpse of whoever had left such a valuable piece of jewelry dangling precariously on a prominent piece of bark but could see nothing but enormous tree trunks in every direction.
As she tried to see through the gloom under the branches, the shaft of sunlight that had shown her the necklace disappeared and she was left in the deepening dusk under the trees. Thankfully, she could still see her wood cart. She hurried to the necklace. She had to drop the armload of wood she was carrying she could slip it over her head. She tucked it into her shirt where it nestled comfortably between her breasts as if it had always been meant to be there. She made quick work of loading the last of the firewood onto her cart. She had been careful to turn the cart facing the direction she'd come; out of the woods.
As she stood in her bedroom, examining the pendant for what seemed like the hundredth time, she remembered the feeling of rightness she'd felt when she put it on. She hadn't worn it since that day, not wanting to lose it when she did her chores, but she slid the chain over her head now, liking the way it settled heavily against the tops of her breasts.
Three weeks later, Violet and Stephen had finally moved everything out of their house. Lilly had bundled her clothes and books into her bed linens and moved everything in one trip. She took apart her bed, carried the pieces to her new home in two trips, and set it back up again herself. No one helped her do any moving though she'd done her fair share of moving her youngest sister's things. Her brothers in law had told her not to worry with helping on the ranch any more. They'd hired a couple of village boys to do the chores. They also told her that Sebastian, the stallion that was supposed to be hers, would have to stay in the stable to perform stud duties for a very expensive new brood mare they'd just bought.
She complied with their requests to keep the peace but she silently fumed at the injustice of it all. Peter was barely cold in his grave and already the others were dismissing her and claiming what should have been hers. She still had to gather firewood for everyone; no one else would go far enough into the forest to get enough deadfall to fill three bins and three stoves. Thankfully Violet had recently gotten a catalogue that had featured electric kitchen stoves and decided she wanted one. Stephen told her he'd get her one when he sold the latest batch of yearlings next month. Lilly knew that when Daisy saw how much less of a mess it was to cook with an electric stove instead of a wood burning one she'd want one too. That would mean a lot less work for Lilly.
Stephen sold the yearlings and ordered the electric stove for Violet the next month. It took six weeks to arrive. Summer was almost over by then and the storms of Fall had started. Daisy did exactly what Lilly thought she would when she saw how much Violet liked using the new stove; she asked Gabe to get her one too.
It was the middle of October then. Violet had just announced she and Stephen were expecting their first child sometime in May. Daisy had convinced Gabe to move into the big house so she could be closer to Violet when her time came. Lilly wasn't invited to move back. She didn't expect to be but it still hurt.
The village boys Stephen and Gabe had hired had braved the dark woods and now provided all the firewood for the big house. The girls that worked the gardens during the summers had taken over canning the fruits of their labors. Lilly did all her own chores and housework. She made do with the wood stove for cooking and heating, canned all her fruits and vegetables herself, and took care of her small flock of chickens .
She was out in the woods today. The air tasted like a storm was coming and she wanted to be prepared. She'd finished all her canning and wanted to hurry and gather as much firewood as she could before the storm hit. She was deeper into the forest than she'd ever been and the wind had started picking up. Dry pine needles were caught in small whirlwinds. What little underbrush there was this far in was tossed about and caught on the skirt she wore over a pair of men's trousers. She wore a heavy coat but the wind seemed to find the smallest gaps in her clothing. She was soon chilled. By the time the cart was filled, the wind was howling through the trees. Lilly stacked the final armload into the cart, picked up the handles, wrapped the harness around her shoulders and started pulling it in the direction it was facing.
After just a few minutes, Lilly was starting to worry. She thought she'd left the cart pointed in the direction of her house but she should have been able to see the edge of the trees by now. She thought for a minute. She was horrified to remember that she had not carefully turned it around like she usually did. In her hurry to gather as much deadfall for firewood as possible before the storm broke she hadn't even gone in a straight line from her house. The temperature had fallen swiftly and the wind showed no sign of letting up. She thought she was in the short branch of the forest that cut off the ranch from the village. She took a deep breath and decided to just keep going in the direction she already was. Surely she'd break out of the trees any minute now. When she let out her breath it was in a fog. She walked a little faster.
She had only gone a few yards when the uneven ground of the woods turned suddenly smooth. The trees opened up slightly to reveal that she'd stumbled upon a road.
"I wonder if there's any truth to the tales those silly girls told me," she said aloud. "I mean, why would a road be in the middle of a forest no one goes into?" She laughed nervously at herself and kept going. She walked briskly along the road for almost a quarter hour. When she saw something glint in the near distance, she slowed slightly. When she got near enough to see that it was a wrought iron gate, silver gilt in places, she slowed her pace further.
When she reached the gate she pulled her cart to the side of the road and unbuckled the harness from her shoulders. She walked to the gate and tried to see some sign of habitation. All she could see was darkness. The moon shone for a few seconds before more clouds raced to cover it. She caught a brief glimpse of a sort of park. It was peppered with different kinds of trees, most of which were rapidly losing their leaves due to the wind.
Lilly decided the best choice was to go into the park and try to find a caretaker. The trees and shrubs looked to be cared for instead of just growing wild. Surely no decent person would leave her outside in this weather. It hadn't started to rain yet but the wind was so fierce she could barely stand.
"Hello!" she called. "Is anyone there?" The wind carried her voice away. She put her hands on the gate and pushed. They swung open with an odd whirring sound. She walked through, feeling the wind's bite even more when she left the denseness of the forest. She wrapped her coat tightly around her body and followed the path. It wasn't perfectly straight but neither did it curve every which way without a clear destination. It was going more or less in the same direction it had been in the forest.
She'd walked for another quarter hour when lightening flashed, revealing an enormous stone castle almost directly ahead of her. She stopped dead in her tracks and just stared. The villagers were right after all. There was a castle in the middle of the forest. Lightening flashed again, accompanied by a thunderclap loud enough to rattle her teeth. This seemed to be a herald for rain. It came sheeting out of the sky in icy cold torrents. Lilly was soaked to the skin in seconds. Her heavy coat was wool and the water it absorbed added so much weight it made it difficult for her to walk.
But walk she did, all the way up the rest of the road that had widened into a circle drive with a fountain in the center. She counted the front steps when she got to them. There were seven and thankfully there was a wrought iron handrail up the center. The extra weight from her coat was almost too much for her already tired muscles to carry. She made it up the steps to the front doors. When she tried the door handle, it lowered completely allowing her to push the door inward on silent hinges. Though it was two stories tall and at least six feet wide it swung open easily with the slightest push.
She slipped inside the castle, closing the door and leaning against it. Lightening flashed again, illuminating the foyer through the enormous multi-paned windows that flanked the front doors. The floor was covered with stone tiles and two rows of marble columns marched into the depths of the castle. Thunder boomed hollowly, rolling and echoing in the vastness of the empty room.
She shivered, partly from cold, partly from fear of the unknown. She glanced around nervously, her eyes gradually adjusting to the darkness. When lightening flashed again she saw a normal sized door to her left. Relieved to see anything normal in this strange place, she walked the dozen steps to it. It, too opened easily to reveal what looked like a cloak room. There was a single candle in a sconce on the wall. She was surprised to see that it was lit. She shed the heavy wool coat and draped it across one of the many empty wooden hangers that occupied two rails on either side of the room. This room was also very large, with hangers enough for well over a hundred coats, cloaks, or jackets. She wasn't worried about the floor as it was the same stone as the foyer. Water wouldn't ruin it.