"What do you mean, he's gone?!" Belle shrieked at the barman, who was already cowering in fear despite the 18-year-old girl being barely half his height. "I told you to keep an eye on him! You know he's demented, you utter....idiot!" She smacked her palm on the bar, eyes blazing with fury. "Where's he gone? Did he give any hint as to where...?"
"I-I don't know, Madame, he was here one minute and the next he had disappeared-" stuttered Claude, backing away from the girl who was growing ever closer.
"He mentioned something about the old castle on the other side of the forest," another customer, Jeanette, volunteered, Claude giving her a grateful nod.
"Yes, yes, I'm sure I heard him saying something about it -- if you go now, you can catch him before he even reaches the woodlands!" he babbled desperately, hurrying Belle out of the pub backwards in a rushed attempt to stop any more customers leaving in disgust. She opened her mouth as if she were about to say something, but instead turned around and flounced out the door, slamming it as she went.
It was cold outside despite only being September, and Belle had to pick up her skirts to stop them dragging through the damp piles of rotting leaves, biting on her lip in irritance as she saw Maurice had taken their horse, Phillipe, with him. At this rate, she wouldn't be able to catch up with her father before midnight at least, as it took at least an hour just to ride there. Then, with a chuckle, she recalled that Gaston, the village cad with a soft spot for her although she had never returned his advances, lived not far, and picked up speed, reaching his door within a few minutes. She rapped at it furiously, being sure to pull down her dress a little further before he opened the door. The broad-shouldered youth looked down at her for a moment, his eyes travelling just beneath her neck and putting a grin on his superficially handsome face. "Belle! What can I do for you? Come in, come in, sit, have a drink...." he grinned at her welcomingly, swinging open the door and beckoning for her to come in. She shook her head, blinking at him with wide eyes that brimmed with tears, flinging her arms around him. "Oh, Gaston! Such a terrible thing has happened! Please, you must help me, I'll do anything!" she sobbed into his chest.
Bemused, he stepped back, trying to shuffle her away and patting her head awkwardly. "What is it, cheri?"
"Oh, my Papa has wandered into the forest alone, and on such a dark night too! I fear the wolves will tear him to pieces unless I bring him back. Please, let me borrow your horse, Gaston, I dread to think what should happen to him if I do not go at once!"
Now, it was not that Gaston was malicious or intended harm to Belle's father, but, as some young men tend to be, he was selfish and at this moment could only think of what he could gain from this; after all, his horse Pierre probably cost more than Belle's entire house had.
"You'll do anything, you say?" he queried, repeating her earlier plea.
Belle nodded dumbly, then stood on her tiptoes, pressing her lips to his ear. "And I'll even..." she whispered, continuing to describe things even the filthiest harlots of France would refuse.
Now it was Gaston's turn to be wide eyed; his mouth dry, he gulped, pulling his jacket across his waist. "Be back by sunset with my horse or there'll be hell to pay," he warned her, swallowing as she gleefully kissed him on the cheek, wondering if he had any idea that she had no intention of fulfilling her promises, brown curls bouncing as she scurried away to fetch Pierre.
She swung up on him with ease; years of horse riding had made her adept at climbing upon one, and as he began to trot forward obediently she dug her heels into his flanks as she pushed him into a gallop, the black stallion giving a whinny.
Clutching at his mane, Belle kept her eyes peeled for any sign of her father, but neither the old man nor Phillipe were anywhere to be seen as she neared the edge of the forest. The trees, silhouetted by the silver gleam of the moon, seemed taller at night as they loomed over her, the thickness of forest almost completely black. Pierre seemed to want to turn back, but she urged him onwards anyway, letting him slow to a canter. It began to rain lightly, and she cursed herself for not wearing something waterproof as she felt the rain begin to penetrate through the hood of her light cloak.
"Papa? Papa?!" she shouted continuously, unable to see more than a few feet in front of her as the walls of trees enveloped her. The horse was now trotting, as if it sensed danger in the air, and Belle tugged her cloak tighter around her, unsure if she was shivering from cold or fear. "Father?" she called, more hesitantly this time.
And then there was a growl from behind her.
Belle turned. Two eyes, glowing green in the darkness, staring straight at her. And another pair. And another.
The one that had just growled at her began to pull back on its haunches and with her heart in her mouth Belle screamed, kicking Pierre forward as he let out a whinny, eyes bulging and frothing at the mouth, his hooves flicking mud at the wolves as he raced forward. They were everywhere, she swore, everywhere she looked she could see the dark grey fur running alongside the horse, so she squeezed her eyes shut, holding tightly onto the horse's mane, clinging on for dear life, hearing the wolves' snarls as they snapped at Pierre's heels.
They were almost upon her now; she could nearly feel their breath on her ankles, threatening to clasp her ankles in their jaws and yank her off.
Now as she opened her eyes for a brief second she could see the edge of the forest, light shining in from the opening in the trees like a godly beam, giving her hope as they neared it. The wolves were beginning to fall behind, as if they too saw the borderlines of their territory, only the most diehard of the canines still chasing them. She could see the outline of the run-down castle beneath the trees, knowing at least she could shelter there for the night and, if her father wasn't also there, she could search for him in the morning. The muddy forest floor soon turned to beaten track and with a sigh of relief, Belle heard the growls and yaps diminish, looking behind and seeing that the wolves had given up their chase. They reached the castle quickly and she dismounted, patting the stallion on the neck as she led him to what looked like an outhouse, tying him up. A low rumble in her stomach reminded her she had forgotten to bring food as she approached the castle door, pulling it open with a creak and slipping inside.
The dust made her eyes water and wrinkled her nose before letting off three explosive sneezes that echoed around the hall noisily.
"Hello?" she called quietly as she crept up the bare stairs, fingers gripping onto the banister tightly. She could have sworn she just heard a thump -- her father, upstairs? She ran up them, hearing another and following the sound, nearly falling over as she flung herself round a corner, pushing through another door to find-
But it wasn't her father.
Belle shrunk back, clutching aimlessly for the door handle as the figure turned around, rising up to it's full height, snarling at her, dark hair wild.
"What are you doing here?" the man demanded, his ice-blue eyes staring at her, looking right through her.
"I-I was look-looking for m-my-" she stuttered, feeling like a child in comparison to the enormous man who in his vehemence seemed even larger.
"Get out!" he roared at her, swinging his hand at her. Belle whimpered and clutched her face as his palm caught it, nails deceptively sharp and leaving a scratch on her cheek that began to well with blood.
"I-I'm here for my father!" Belle shouted in reply, fists clenched so hard her nails dug into her palms, trying to sound as if she wasn't terrified of him though she was shaking with fear.
He had already stepped back at seeing he had made her bleed -- guilt, or curiosity? -- and her show of defiance just made him all the more perturbed. "Get out of my home." he continued in a low throaty growl.
"Take me to my father and you shall never see either of us again." she hissed back.
"He trespassed so I put him in the dungeon, and there he shall remain -- now LEAVE before I do the same to you!"
He advanced towards her, grabbing her by the shoulder, her struggles no avail as he yanked her through the door.
"No! Please!" she begged, "He's old and he'll die here! Take me instead!"
He stopped. Swinging round, he raised an eyebrow and pressed his face closer to hers, grabbing her arm tighter. "I think I might just do that."
Belle concealed an inner scream at him.
You're not supposed to agree, you're supposed to be so touched by the sacrifice I would make for my father that you let us both go!
On the surface, though, she remained silent, merely regarding him with a hostile glare. He reached to his neck and unclasped the chain decorating it and gripped her wrists together, spinning her around and pushing her against the railing of the stair, his body pressed against hers to pin her there. He ignored her struggles and shouts of indignance as he deftly pulled her wrists either side of the bar, wrapping the chain around them so they were locked together, fixing it back together with a click.
"What on earth-?!" Belle cried as he let her go, stunned at the speed of it and the strength of the chain as she tugged at it helplessly. He cocked an eyebrow at her.
"Don't worry, I'll be back before you know it." he told her, his voice seeming more human now, before running down the stairs with a grace that was bizarre for a man his size. She watched him saunter out of the hall and through another door and was overcome with fear and horror at what had just happened. It was all her father's fault, the daft old fool, wandering off all the time with his fanciful notions -- and now, she was restrained in an unknown place with a strange man as her only company!
"Ridiculous old man..." she muttered under her breath, scowling.
Wait, was -- that -- his voice?
Sure enough, the man had dragged him into the hall, but Maurice was too focused on rambling to him to notice Belle.
"Papa!" she yelled at him excitedly, happy he was safe in spite of herself.
"Belle? What are you doing here? I thought you were-"
"Come on." the man grunted, pulling him towards the door.
"What are you-? No, he can't go out by himself, he'll end up killing himself!" she screamed -- was she to stay here for nothing?
"And I suppose you'd come back if I let you accompany him?" Belle pressed her lips together, giving him an icy stare. "Just as I thought. He'll be fine."
"But the wolve-"
But he had already ushered Maurice out of the door and locked it shut behind him.
"My father's going to die now because of you," she spat at him as he made his way back up the stairs.
"He'll be fine." he repeated wearily as he reached her. She glanced at his face as he neared, only now really looking at the sculpted features and dark, angular brows, the thought passing through her head that in another time and place, in different clothes, he would have looked handsome. Then, as he leant behind her, his hand brushed her rear and she lashed out automatically, managing to kick him right between the legs. He gave a groan, face contorted with pain as he fell back, crumpling to the floor. Belle felt a twinge of guilt as she realised he had just been about to undo the chain, which quickly disappeared -- after all, he had so readily agreed to swapping her father for her that she had no doubt what he wanted her for, and he had just sent her father to almost certain death.
"You...you...bitch!" he hissed through his teeth as he clutched himself, glaring at her from the floor. "Apologise, now."
She snorted derisively, raising one eyebrow at him.
"Fine." he scowled, pushing himself back up. "Stay there until you do, then." He gave her another steely glare, then turned and limped back to what Belle assumed was his room.
Belle tugged again at the chain, but it was pointless, and just made the metal cut deeper into her wrists. Sighing, she shifted about, waiting for him to return and let her go anyway.
Ten minutes passed and he still didn't return.
By now she'd found a way to slide downwards so she could sit down, legs crossed and her head tipped back as she leant against the bars of the banister, arms aching from the uncomfortable position. The ache in the pit of her stomach was getting increasingly prominent too and she was beginning to get a headache too. Not to mention it was cold, and she'd left her damp cloak outside with the horse.
Then she heard footsteps, and saw that it was the man, approaching her. Glancing at him, she stopped as he noticed stared at the floor instead, biting her lip to stop her from shouting at him.
He crouched in front of her and used a hand to tilt her chin up to face him, his crystal blue eyes staring deep into her brown ones, and she shuffled about, casting her eyes to the side to break the spell he seemed to be trying to put on her. He ran a surprisingly smooth finger across the scratch on her cheek and she sucked in her breath at the sting, closing her eyes as she winced.
"Are you going to apologise yet?" he asked her, but his tone was gentle compared to the harsh growls she'd heard earlier.
Belle mumbled a barely-audible response, still looking away from him.
"What was that?"
"Sorry." she muttered, voice filled with resentment rather than sorrow.
"Hmph. 'Spose that'll do. Stand up." he ordered, doing the same himself.
She did as he told her, though her legs were shaky and weak and she nearly fell back down. As he leant forward she instinctively pulled back and away from him, though this time she kept both feet together to let him unclip the necklace. She snatched her wrists away from him the second they were free, rubbing them where the chain had left sore criss-cross imprints around both of them.
"What's your name?" he asked her, placing his arms either side of her so she was pinned there. She wriggled about uncomfortably before murmuring "Belle", no louder than a whisper.
"Belle...what a pretty name..." he said as he got unnervingly close, his chest pressing against hers, his breath on her neck. She tried to wriggle away from him, pushing him away but was stuck fast as he caught her wrist and held it against the railing, one hand trailing down her thigh and pulling up her dress, his leg nudging her thighs open, his lips against her throat, gently sucking. She let out a whimper of fear but he mistook it for arousal, sliding his hand across her breast gently.
"N-no, please, stop, I don't want to-"
He silenced her with a kiss, soft but unyielding, his tongue gently tracing the outline of her lips. Though she knew she'd be punished for it but feeling as if she had no choice she bit down hard on his tongue as it slipped into her mouth, tasting blood. He grunted in surprise, pulling away and only now noticing the terror on her face, her chocolate-brown eyes glistening with tears. He spat blood on the floor, lips red with it, hands clenched but he kept his anger hidden as he stared at her.
"I...I..." she stuttered, horrified at what she'd done, tensing her body up as she waited for a blow, but none came.
"I should...get you something to eat." he said after a moment's apprehension, his voice preoccupied. He took her by the hand and led her somewhat distractedly back to his room, sitting her upon the bed. "I'll return shortly." he told her, before walking back out, closing the door behind him.
Sitting there, Belle felt as if she was in an entirely different world. Was this all just a strange dream? The man was strange, that was easy to say. To treat her so roughly, almost rape her, and then offer some sort of dumb kindness? And she still didn't even know his name.
The room was dark, but warm, although it had a lingering scent of wet dog about it at which Belle wrinkled her nose. The curtains were drawn, blocking out nearly all light from the full moon and stars - a few shreds across it let in a couple of beams, but other than that the only light came from the flickering lantern on the desk by the window. The bed she was sat on looked as if it had once been expensive, but now were mangled and torn. The same went for the paintings on the walls, now unrecognisable with their ripped canvases, and even the walls had a few gouges in them. In a nutshell, it didn't seem particularly pleasant nor safe. Still, she kept herself from touching anything -- although the candlestick by the window looked heavy enough to be a formidable enough weapon if it came to it...no, she would have to work out how else to escape, as she doubted that even with the aid of an object she could beat him in a fight unless she surprised him first.
Her thoughts were interrupted as he re-entered bearing two bowls. "Soup. Not much, but it's food." he explained at her quizzical look. She nodded, shuffling away from him as he sat down next to her on the bed. Silently he passed her one of the bowls, the steaming soup warming her hands but she felt too sick to eat, instead just staring down at the bobbing vegetables. He had already dug into his and was slurping it down with great gusto, making Belle feel even more nauseous.
He glanced at her, having already finished his. "You need to eat, Belle." he said softly, touching her hand. She flinched, at the sound of his voice uttering her name once more and his touch, nearly spilling the soup, and he backed off immediately, raising his open hands in front of him. "I'm sorry!- I- just...eat, please?"
She closed her eyes for a second before reluctantly picking up the spoon, stirring the soup aimlessly before bringing a half-full spoonful to her lips, the plea in his voice urging her to just do as he asked for now.
Although he was no cook, it wasn't repulsive; still, after he had intently watched her slowly sip a few spoonfuls she couldn't stomach any more, feeling awkward as she placed the spoon back in the bowl.
"Thank you." she mumbled quietly, still not making eye contact.
He sighed, nodding, and gently took the bowl from her, setting it upon the desk with his own.
"Are you tired?"
She shrugged, offering no other reply.
"Well, I think we should get some sleep now. Don't you?" he suggested, Belle still staying silent. She watched as he stood and stretching, walking over to the door and pushing it completely shut, reaching up and sliding across the bolt at the top of it -- if he could only just reach it, she knew she hadn't a hope. Then without a care he began to slip off his boots, shirt, trousers, until he was only left in his undergarments, then started to slip into bed. Confused, Belle stood up, looking wildly around as if expecting another bed to appear for her benefit, raising a disbelieving eyebrow at him as he chuckled, patting the space next to him. She backed away, shaking her head in horror, to which he simply stated
"It's in my bed or the floor. I can't trust you in a guest room."
As if he'd have guests over in a place like this, Belle found herself thinking as she knelt resolutely on the floor, lying down and curling up despite the cold stone digging into every part of her, already shivering.
"As you wish, then." He let out another sigh and rolled over, soon beginning to snore. She willed sleep to come but with the uncomfortable floor, no pillow or blanket, and the events of the evening before, it denied her, slipping out of her grasp as soon as she thought she had finally succeeded.
And then, without meaning to, she began to cry.
I'm never going to see Papa again, am I? I'm going to be stuck here until I die, years upon years of serving that -- Beast! Even if I escape...I won't be able to marry anyone, not how he'll leave me. But then...he showed me kindness, earlier. Apologised -- though not for touching me, though -- and showed what seemed to be remorse. It's as if he's trying to make up for it, though, at least giving me food. That's certainly more than I expected.