The Beast Under The Moonlight
At the darkest hour of the night, a young man rode through a damp forest with his horrid cargo in the back of his carriage. He was a servant of the prince who ruled the land just beyond the forest. It was an honor he strongly regretted in all his time beneath that cruel man. Tonight's latest acquisition burned that hatred deeper into his heart. His prince was a collector of "oddities", an "eccentric", as he called himself. A monster, the man muttered under his breath. The Prince's "hobby" was not shown off to the general public. Few aristocrats knew of what he did other than those of similarly twisted minds. The Prince was a collector of corpses. His morbid desires centered around a very particular type of corpse. A beautiful, young woman, preserved perfectly as she was in the moment of her death. No other corpse quite excited his majesty like that of a woman struck down in the prime of her life. Those women became his dolls to pose and display as he wished after he carefully preserved and manipulated their cold bodies. In a room at the deepest depths of the castle, a room he called his "Doll Case", he put them all on display in air-tight glass boxes. Each woman was posed in some horrifying way suggesting how she met her end. He loved to recreate their final expressions, many of which he had known as the Prince often collected his corpses freshly. In each, fear, pain, hopelessness. Wounds and bloodied robes were highlighted in his displays. The giant coffin wreaked of dead flesh and the odorous preservatives he cloaked them in. The servant always wondered how such a filthy man managed to cover up his disgusting smell when he waltzed around in public. The cargo the servant carried tonight was different from his majesty's usual victim. The young woman had no wounds on her body, no disfigurements to mar her beauty. Even her face was perfectly peaceful, as if she were merely lost in a deep slumber. From the details he overheard from the seller, the woman had mysteriously dropped cold one day. Her caretakers had kept her in a glass coffin as well. The servant never understood people who wanted to look at corpses. Death stole the bright spirit that once animated that body, and it was the earth's rightful place to take the remains to form new life. Much like his master's display cases, the glass coffin that contained her body only served as a means to keep her from the earth's embrace. While he could not guess the intentions of her caretakers, he suspected more a bizarre form of grieving than anything disturbing. The seller was clearly a similarly monstrous creature like his prince. The seller, another haughty and disgusting aristocrat, had taken over the area her caretakers had lived in and seized her corpse as a prize for himself. He had been intrigued by her coffin and the story behind it, long enough to spare her caretakers' lives until they had told him all the details. The servant mused that perhaps that was a better end for them. If their original intentions had merely been an attempt to ease their grief, it was best they didn't live long enough to see their precious one taken from them and put up in a courtyard for bored royals to gossip and point at. Due to her perfect condition, the Prince had found her interesting and thought she would make a nice addition to his Doll Case. He had dubbed her "The Untouched Beauty". The servant couldn't deny her beauty himself. Of all the corpses he had been made to deliver and help put on display, she was the only one he could stand to look at in the face. Her appearance only deepened his hatred for his master, and for himself. After all, how could he judge the Prince when he willingly helped him to line his own pockets and protect himself? Rationally, it made sense to do the Prince's bidding. Those who dwelled outside the castle walls faced a life of famine and uncertainty. Constantly at risk from attacks by knights, some of whom belonged to their own kingdom, there was never safety. Those noblemen saw fit to take what little the people had acquired for themselves, and down anyone who stood in their way. His role under the Prince was nothing to be proud of, but it granted him certain privileges and protections, along with a steady supply of income. He wanted to stab himself for the directions of his own thoughts. The servant came under the employment of the Prince when he was very young. The Prince had caught him sneaking into the castle when he was looking for his mother, who had not returned from work and had been missing for a week. She too was a very beautiful woman, as beautiful as the girl in glass behind him, and that was exactly what caught the Prince's interest. His mother, shortly after his father died, became a maid in the castle. They moved into a small house outside the castle. The brief time there had been wonderful. Their family had never had so much food before, and his mother's daily work was far less stressful than when she worked for hours outside. While he missed his father, during that time, he was grateful to the Prince and happy for his mother's lightened load. Soon, his mother began an affair with the Prince himself. She took his words as gospel, that his love was true and pure. If only they had been born of the same class, they could marry. He would adorned her with jewels and fancy dresses. His mother was innocence to the Prince's disturbing ways. She never saw through to his real intentions. Her case was labeled "The Widow Seamstress", a reference to the way he had dismembered her and loosely reassembled her, with "exposed seams", as he called them. Her display was on the third row to the left from the entrance, second slot. As "compensation" for taking his mother, the Prince offered him a job as his personal assistant in his dealings with the "dolls". Of course, it wasn't really an offer. The alternative, the Prince said, was that he could join his mother on display. Afraid, he took the offer. He wished he had declined. Every time he entered the Doll Case, he was greeted with his mother's pained eyes, a constant reminder of his choice. As the winter was drawing nearer, his own life and death weighed heavily on his mind. On more than one occasion, he had contemplated driving his carriage off a bridge or a cliff. Once, he seriously considered asking the Prince to string him up the same way as his mother. He had let that thought go. A child clutching their mother's body enhanced a display. A grown man would not please the Prince. As he was now, he added no "beauty", and was thus worthless. He doubted the Prince would get any enjoyment out of torturing him either. Perhaps, he joked to himself, at the very least the Prince could do for him was have him hanged. "I'm sorry for you, Miss," He spoke to the cargo behind him. "You're about to be put up in a place of horror. At least you can't see it. Sometimes, I wish he'd blind me. But you don't belong there. I'm sorry for robbing you of your grave." Lonely, he continued talking to her. "You know, in fairytales, princes are always good people, princesses and princes. Gentle knights, happy stories about the poor becoming rich through their goodness. None of those things are real though. The cobblers and tailors who tell those stories know it. They've been around enough places to see the same sadness. I think that's why they tell them that way, to ease the pain they see everywhere." He stopped the carriage at a clearing. In the center of the skyline, the full moon shone down. The brightness of it made the whole area glow. "This moon glows like you. If we were in a story, certainly, it would be a magical event. You'd wake from death, and I...I'd become a beast, I suppose. No, beasts always have a chance to be saved, and besides, they're usually princes. I'm wicked, so perhaps an owl would peck out my eyes." For the last decade, the servant had done everything the Prince had ever wanted of him. There was no command too great. All for fear. At some point, it had occurred to him that the Prince likely wouldn't torture him if he disobeyed anyway. He quickly grew as a teenager and stood taller than the Prince by the time he was fifteen. Likely, he could run away and the Prince would not pursue him. Why he had stayed all that time he could only assume was still fear, fear of another kind. He had gotten used to getting his hands dirty and living comfortably the rest of the time. He knew that was the real reason. He dishonored his mother by living the way he did. Her death should have served as a warning to him, and yet he stayed. He could always have run away. "My dear mistress, in this cold night, did you expect to be spending it with a monster?" He had a schedule to keep, but tonight he didn't care. For all the time he stole away, the Prince could learn to do some waiting. "The earth is cold underground too. I've been down in it, pulling up what should have stayed down after it was placed there. Sometimes the Prince likes them in that state." In the distance, he could hear wolves howling. Their calls long kept him company in his travels. A beautiful, haunting cry, reaching out for one another...he loved to listen to them. "Do you hear them, Miss? The beasts of the night are out. Though they're far kinder than their story counterparts usually are. If I could become a beast, I would want to be a wolf. My voice would suit me then. I'd be the wolf who calls alone, as no one would return my calls. I hear you had no family either, Miss. There are a lot of orphans in this world, unjustly so. Was it so for you?" There was no reply from the woman. He hadn't expected one, but he paused just the same. "I'm sure if you had one, you're family would have surrounded you with warm things. Or do you prefer the cold? Your skin is like this moonlight, pale and cold. Your hair matches the deep, frigid earth underneath. And your lips are as red as fresh blood. Truly, you of any corpse I have seen, look as though you belong to a moon cradled graveyard, basking in that empty light. His candle lights won't suit you, nor would the sun. No, you belong to the moon and the snow, blood and earth, and death." A part of him was sickened at his own words. He was starting to sound like the Prince with all the strange compliments he gave the lady in glass. "I heard you suddenly died one day, and they couldn't find anything wrong with you. I bet Death himself saw you and stole you away to be his alone. If it was you I saw come to collect me when my time came, I wouldn't be worthy of your sight. If you wouldn't mind, Miss, if you really have become part of Death...I am ready to leave when you are." A thud came from the inside of the carriage. The servant's heart pounded. Slowly, he turned his head back towards the coffin. Was he hearing things? A second thud, and then another. With each pounding, the noise grew louder. Something was trying to get out of the carriage. The servant could hardly breathe. Had Death really come to take him? Shaking, he got down from the front of the carriage and walked over to the door. This was what he had asked for. His hand felt like a boulder as he tried to raise it. The pounding became more frantic. He took a deep breath and swung open the door. Inside the carriage, he shined his lantern in. The lady in glass, eyes wide open, was banging on her glass coffin. Her eyes met with his. The shade of rich turned earth matched well with her night stained hair. Tears ran down her face. This woman wasn't Death, nor had she even known it. She truly had been trapped in a deep slumber. He removed the glass to free her. With the glass gone, she fell half out of the bottom of the coffin, gasping and coughing. She coughed up something strange, a violent green and purple chunk of rotting fruit. Mixed in with the rancid smell, he recognized the scent of a poison the Prince had used in some of his killings. She must have got the fruit caught in her throat, and thus it couldn't take full effect, he reasoned. Whoever she was, someone had already wanted her to die. Her black hair fell over the thick, white fur cloak she wore. She raised her head to him. "Where am I?" "You're in transport, Miss." For the first time in a long time, a deep pain welled up inside him. Most of the women he brought back to the castle were already dead, or he had seen them only in their final moments. This woman was alive, and far from the grips of death. In his words, he felt himself poisoning them both at his own suggestion of her fate. "Transport? Why? Where is my cottage...my friends?" Her face filled with fear. "I'm afraid they are gone now." He put his hand on the woman's shoulder as she cried. He couldn't take her to the Prince. In all his time in the castle, he had never disobeyed. Tonight, he couldn't force his spirit to feign emptiness. He knew what lay in store if he brought her back. She may have woken, but the Prince would gladly take a living woman any day. He could choose a death for her then. As beautiful as she was, he was certain the Prince would pick something particularly gruesome for her. "Is there anywhere else you could go?" "No, I...I don't have any family. I was already running away when I came to that cottage." Her sweet voice was cloaked in her sadness. His mind searched for any thread of hope he could offer her. "Do you think you can live on your own, if I could take you to a place deep in the woods?" "I...suppose so. My friends helped me out a lot when I lived with them, but I think I learned enough from them that I could make it." A little bit of spark returned to her voice. "I've traveled these lands for years. I know of places no one ever goes. I'll take you far away. You should be safe then. If you would like, that is..." He offered his hand to her. "Yes, thank you. But..aren't you supposed to be delivering me to someone? Why are you helping me escape?" She didn't know the details of what awaited her at the castle, but he could tell by the look in her eyes that evil was not unknown to her. She had known it before that poison ever touched her lips. "Won't something happen to you?" "Don't worry about me. I am nobody, nobody at all. The sun and moon will not miss my presence, nor anyone else. But this world will be a little brighter with your light in it. If I can do nothing else good, for once, perhaps I can give someone a happy ending instead of carrying them to death." He bowed to her, his hand still extended. "Please forgive me. My hands are stained as red as your lips. I am a beast, a monster in human form. If you will allow me to serve you once, I would be honored." She took his hand without hesitation. "I am not afraid of monsters or beasts. The man who first helped me run away was sent to take me to my death too. Are you not the same? He called himself a monster too, and still he freed me. If you are a beast, then poor beast, take me where you please. I am not afraid of monsters bound by chained collars. There's blood stained on your neck as well as your hands, is there not?" He raised his head to meet her gaze again. Somehow, this woman, who knew nothing about him, could see all that inside of him. No one had ever looked at him with any dignity aside from his own parents, and here she was, her gaze as powerful and kind as the moonlight and the glow of snow on the earth. He felt a cold, gentle light reflected onto himself. "Who are you?" She smiled kindly. "Nobody, nobody at all." "Then we are both nothing, so we should not belong to the realm of men any longer, however that may be. Thank you, my lady." He helped her out of the carriage and walked her to his horses. "For what?" She asked as he raised her on to one of the horse's backs. "I don't really know, to be honest." He took the horse beside hers. "Let me free you. I can't promise you any more than that, and I don't deserve to." "Do as you wish." She smiled again. Her face was still stained with tears, but a strong expression took over. The servant thought to himself, perhaps not Death, but the earth itself is who you belong to. They rode through the night as he took her far away, to the place where no royals' lands reached, high up in the mountains. This place was the coldest he knew, perpetually covered in snow. Riding beside him, she looked at home in the scenery as her white fur cloak fluttered against the snowflakes around them. Near a cliff-side, there was an abandoned cabin. He was unsure how well it had stood up since he last visited it, but he could think of no other dwelling to take her to in the area. The cabin was in decent condition when they arrived. He helped her off the horse and led her inside. He placed his lantern near the door to illuminate the room. "I'm sorry. This is the best I can do for you." She quickly began to tidy up the dusty table in the center of the one room house. "It's more than I need. Thank you. Would you like to stay here too?" The little cabin, covered in snow and fallen branches, was beautiful. For the first time in years, he felt like he was standing in a real home. The happiness that filled the air was like an icy wind waking him up. His heart aching, he bowed to the woman. "I'm sorry. I do not belong in this place. I am a monster." "I know you say that, but I'm sure in time, that will fade away." She offered her hand to him this time. "Stay with me." He bowed deeper. "It will not. If I stay as I am, I'm certain he will find you...and you..." She touched his face. The woman was even more beautiful up close. The gaze of her dark eyes left him breathless. "I understand. Then, poor beast, leave as you are, and you will return to me in this pure white." She undid her white fur cloak and wrapped it around him. Before he could say another "I don't deserve this", she put her finger to his lips to silence him. "Go as you are, and return as yourself." He didn't understand her words, but he nodded and took his leave. The fur coat smelled like fresh snow. He wrapped it tightly around himself as he wandered aimlessly down the mountain. His thoughts about the Prince, and his crimes with the Prince fell one by one from his mind like the falling snow around him until his mind was empty of everything but her. He seemed to wander for ages, completely lost in the snow storm. The white around him was comforting and terrifying. When he finally reached the bottom of the mountain, where the snow barely fell, he stopped and stared at the boundary between the world of snow and the world he knew. He couldn't stop thinking about her. She had known evil first hand. That horrid fruit must have been some other cruel monster's malice, and here he had been on his way to deliver her up to another monster. She knew that. How could she see him as anything but a monster? Why did she not hate him, fear him? His feet would not take him to the other side where he belonged. He wanted to wrap himself up in the snow and cold, huddled under her fur cloak. He spoke to himself. "I am nobody." He looked back towards the mountain. Each footstep echoed as fear inside him. The long path up the mountain took him even longer than his trip down. He worried if she would still be there, or if she ever existed at all. After the long journey, which he knew should have only taken hours, he found the cabin bathed in moonlight. His lantern still lit the house. As if she had been waiting, expecting him, there was she was standing in the doorway of the cabin. She waved to him. "Come to me, my poor beast. Stay with me." He ran as fast as he could towards her. She hugged him tightly. Without another word, she led the lone, white wolf into the cold cabin. The broken branches had been woven into wreathes that never faded and the windows were lined with glittering icicles. The cold never bothered either of them, keeping their hearts safely enclosed from the world beyond their realm. The white wolf stayed by her side at every moment, a kind beast who never drew blood again.
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