Warning: This story contains content that is intended for a mature audience
Trigger Warning: This story contains a brief description of sexual assault
It was a cold night. Much colder than Rebecca had anticipated when she begged her father to take them on this futile adventure. She felt sorry for that; embarrassed even. She had only been trying to do her part. To earn her keep. It was not a thing she was in any way obligated to do. It did, however, feel like the right thing to do. Or, at least it had until the snow had picked up. It whirled around them as though it were a vengeful punishment for being foolish. What began as a gentle snowfall had suddenly spiralled into a miasma of sharp snowflakes and harsh winds. Rebecca could no longer see even a foot in front of her. She wondered if her father was fairing any better, but was nervous to ask. She had only wanted to trade the hoods she had woven in the hopes that her family might eat tonight. That dream was now buried under the sheet of frost forming on her ratty heeled boots.
“I don’t know where we are,” her father finally admitted. His voice was shaky now as he yelled through the storm. He was right beside Rebecca in the carriage they borrowed from an increasingly pestered neighbour, but he sounded a million miles away.
Rebecca looked around to no avail. They had not seen a house in miles. She was no longer expecting to. She had to bite her bottom lip to keep her teeth from chattering. She was afraid they’d soon chip away to dust. And then it happened, a flicker of light in the distance.
“Look!” Rebecca pointed towards the light. Just imagining its warmth heated her cheeks.
Her father directed the horse to follow the light and before long it became clear that the light was coming from a window in a high-up tower that was part of a Palace. Rebecca noticed this before her father and the realization sent her heart plummeting into the pit of her gut. How had they ended up on the Palace grounds without noticing? It was highly illegal to be here. Rebecca had heard some of the lore surrounding what happened to trespassers. Mostly, they were never seen again. Which, of course, only made the stories more speculative… and more terrifying.
“We have to go back!” she finally asserted. But it was too late. A guard had caught sight of them and was approaching.
Rebecca and her father looked at each other. He nodded; an attempt to assure her there was no reason to be afraid. It didn’t help. She thought to grip his hand, but her icy fingers would not cooperate.
“Who goes there?!” The voice was stern and uninviting. Rebecca had expected no less.
“Please, sir, if you will. We are loyal subjects to His Majesty. I am but a poor merchant lost in a storm with my cold and hungry daughter. She is only a girl of nineteen. We mean no harm.”
Without a word, the guard stepped towards Rebecca and held a flickering lantern to her face. After a quick but thorough examination, which made Rebecca terribly uncomfortable, he stepped back again.
“Trespassing on this property is a crime against your King. However, he is a reasonable man. You will wait here.” With that, he turned and marched towards the large iron gates.
Now, Rebecca found the power to squeeze her father’s arm tight. While they waited, another guard watching over them, she tried not to think about the stories of missing women and found heads. Only the heads, that is. She also tried not think of how relentless she had been about this trip. Her siblings had always teased her for being thick-headed. This was the first time she thought they might be right.
Finally, the intimidating guard returned.
“You will enter,” he announced and he and the other guard went to work opening the gates wide enough for the carriage.
Rebecca shuttered at his use of the word “will.” Should it not have been “may”? This was probably not the time for grammar pondering, but still; something inside of her urged her to look back out into the great white beyond. It was as if her heart feared that it would be the last time she would belong to the outside world. And, as they say, the heart does not often lie.
They entered into a Grand Hall, adorned with gold trim and statues of fierce wolves. They were beautiful, in that special way that beasts can belong to a class of beauty that does not apply to humans. The word “eccentric” came to mind. The decor choices of their King were atypical and salient. It was at that moment that Rebecca realized she was in a Royal hall. A new nervousness came over her. Her family was from a lowly bloodline in a common village. They were out tonight for the sole purpose of scrounging for food. Begging, even. Her garments were hardly worth the meat and bread she had been unsuccessfully asking for in exchange. Clearly, they would have nothing to say to a king; and anything they did say would likely be wrong.
“This way,” a guard motioned.
Rebecca looked at her father. He was in awe of his surroundings, as well. Star-struck already, she could tell. He looked over at her, apparently feeling her eyes on him. He smiled that goofy smile he always offered when he found himself in strange situations. “No way out but through” he’d say.
Through, as it turned out, was luxurious. They were brought to a spectacular sitting room and given hearty breads and cheeses and fruits while they waited for the King. And wait they did. Hours passed, in fact, and they were eventually brought cured meats and wine. As the night grew older, Rebecca and her father had almost forgot they were waiting. They had gorged on the foods dreams were made of, and gulped wines their village-kin would not believe existed. Rebecca was not used to the fermented grapes and they seemed to bury themselves deep inside of her muscles, putting them at reckless ease. It was then that the King announced himself.
Mid-conversation, a loud and pointed grunt tore through the room. Rebecca and her father scrambled to their feet at once, but the King warmly gestured for them to return to their seats.
“Please,” he said. “I do not intend to interrupt such a joyous family occasion. Laughter so rarely fills these rooms.”
Not wanting to offend, Rebecca curtsied and sat back down. Her father bowed and did the same.
The man before them was tall and lean; very fit. Even through his clothing Rebecca could tell he was muscular. His face was masked behind a thick but tailored beard. His long hair was pulled back elegantly. His eyes were deep and mysterious. Rebecca instantly felt as though she was falling into them. It made her want to squirm, but at the same time, she simply could not move.
“I hope you’ve had sufficient time to warm up. It’s simply treacherous out there.” As the King spoke, he stared only at Rebecca. This too made her want to squirm. She could feel the heat rising at the back of her neck.
Rebecca’s father began to speak, but his voice only sounded like background mumbles to Rebecca, who was busy wondering how such awful rumours could have ever been spread about such an overtly kind and beautiful man. And just like that, she was under his spell.
In that isolated and fantastical Palace, time seemed to pass outside of time and space. There was no telling what was happening beyond those walls. More goodies were brought out at the King’s request. Pastries, now; and more wine, of course. The three of them ate and laughed and listened to music. All the while, the King had been setting the traps, lining up his prey. He coaxed Rebecca’s father into telling sad tales about the trouble of raising several daughters on the salary of a widowed merchant. He tricked him into admitting that he had no prospects for his girls – how could he? He had no dowry to offer. No titles to pass on. He had nothing; not even a promise of a daily meal. The King shook his head, tsk-tsked the terrible state of society. Of humanity. He claimed to want to help. He said he was compelled – no, accountable, to help. And so, he made him a deal. The King offered the poor man his own weight in gold, on a single condition. Rebecca. Rebecca would have to stay with him.
Some might say it was an impossible choice, but they would be wrong. Rebecca’s heart throbbed a little, because she knew her father would hate to barter her away, but that he would. And though that stung, it was eased by the tenderness of the King’s voice and the devilishly seductive knowledge that this wealthy and powerful man wanted her. Now and then, Rebecca would look back on that night and mourn the fact that she would never know for sure what her father would have said if he had honestly had to choose. But alas, like the brave and honourable girl Rebecca had always been, she made the choice for him, and offered herself to the King forever more.
As if the storm too was under the King’s command, it had slowed to a stop as soon as the deal was made. The King suggested Rebecca’s father hurry home with the happy news. There was a bite to his tone that signalled this was not merely a suggestion, but an order. Rebecca was not sure her father had caught that, and brushed it off as a misinterpretation. He was simply eager to spend one-on-one time with his new bride-to-be. That, she told herself, was entirely well-meaning. Rebecca and her father exchanged tearful goodbyes but Rebecca assured him she would visit soon. The carriage rattled of jewels as he drove out into the darkness.
Once she and the King were alone a distinct chill whisked through Rebecca. The fire had died down so that the room was colder and darker. It began to take on the appearance of abandonment and doom. The food plates were no longer filled with luscious treats, and only a few sips of the deep red wine remained. No staff came to offer refills, or to tend to the fire. It was just Rebecca, the King, and an encroaching dread. Rebecca tried to swallow down that discomfort. It was late, after all; they had to go to bed at some point.
“Are you tired?” the King asked, as if reading her mind.
“A little,” Rebecca admitted, trying not to give her worry away.
“You look tense.” His voice was a little different now. Rich and viscous, with a slight growl to it – like raw honey.
He approached Rebecca slowly, his eyes narrowed in on her heaving chest. She thought to step back and give herself some breathing room. She was not sure what had changed between them, exactly, but she was astutely aware of the change itself. He was practically on top of her now, smoothing a loose curl behind her ear so that he could whisper gently into it.
“You smell like innocence.”
This made Rebecca quake. She knew now what he was after, and did not know if she could provide. The thought had not occurred to her when she agreed to their arrangement.
“I-I’ve never –”
“Shhhh.” The King wrapped his strong hands around her waist and lifted her onto his. There was a fire in his eyes now.
Her trembling was exciting to him; she could tell. She wanted him to ease her nerves but she had a feeling that he wanted them on high alert – delicately sensitive to his every touch. And when one hand slipped up her skirt and the other wrapped around her neck, she knew he also wanted her to scream. Alarmed, she tried to wriggle free but was frozen still by the perverse glow that poured through his eyes like molten lead. The hair on his face thickened and his grip tightened. His canines sharpened and elongated, forcing his jaw to creak open in the most unnatural way, as if operated by a crank. His writhing, flocculent body swelled three-fold and his clothes shredded away. A smile tore across his now monstrous face as he stared into Rebecca’s. In his demon eyes, she could see her horror reflected two times over. She had been tricked into the claws of a Beast.
That first night with him sent Rebecca into something of a shock. When he was finished with her, his menacing and stormy laugh seemed to roar through the Palace. Its echo returning to mock Rebecca. She could hear it all, but it was distant, as if in an alternate reality. She lay on the floor trying to make sense of everything or anything. She could barely see straight, let alone think. She must have lied there for hours, but time had no bearing on her sense of reality at that point. Eventually, a man she believed to be in armour carried her off. She could feel the light bouncing, her long black braid dangling at her side, and she could tell the spaces around her were in motion. But she was not aware of what was happening. She did not care.
Although Rebecca was not cognizant of it, the guard had placed her in a tall tower and there she stayed, until one day she decided that if the fates would not turn on their own, she’d have to turn them herself. It was true that she had not gotten her happily-ever-after, but it occurred to her that she hadn’t gotten her once upon a time yet, either. No story ends with survival. Survival can only be a new beginning.
Rebecca was resourceful. When she and her siblings had been bored, she had made up stories and games. When she and her siblings had been cold, she had taught herself how to make blankets and hoods. When she and her siblings had been hungry, she had journeyed into the great unknown to trade those hoods for food. Now, alone and imprisoned she was presumed helpless. But she was not. She was resourceful.
Days turned into weeks; weeks into months. And yet, the winter remained ferocious – uncompromising; unwavering. Rebecca did not mind it anymore. It gave her strength. While she had once believed that winter was a curse, she now understood that it was only nature. Nature could be sometimes cruel, and sometimes generous. Neither needed to be taken to heart. Still, it made it feel as though, outside of her prison, time stood still, waiting for her to make a move. And make a move she would, as soon as the time was right. She would not rush, making herself vulnerable to foolish mistakes. She would not end up headless, like the women from the vicious bedtime stories. Nor would she end up nail-less, as she could see so many women before her had become. Bits of bloodied nails been swept into every corner of the stone-walled room. At first, looking at them had made Rebecca lightheaded. But now, they were a daily reminder that her patience would pay off. And it was, after all, these grotesque souvenirs that had given Rebecca the spark she needed to formulate the plan that now blazed excitedly inside of her.
These women had clawed at the walls, grinding their nails to dust. The wall was hard and rough and perfect for scraping. Rebecca had snapped her heel off of one of her worn leather boots and rubbed it furiously against the stone. It had become angled, and then pointed, and now sharp. Each time a guard came to bring her bread and water, she had slipped it back onto her foot, and let her dress hang loose over it. The guards never looked at her feet, anyways. Their gaze always landed a fair bit higher. Though Rebecca imagined she had grown gaunt, her hair simply grew. It grew, and it grew, and it grew. It was strong. It always had been. There were no bars on the small tower window. She supposed this was meant to be a cruel joke. The only way out was down. Far down. Rebecca was fine with that.
When it was finally time, her heart pitter-pattered; the excitement and fear transfusing back and forth. She picked her hair up from the floor and triple-checked that the braid was secure. When she was satisfied, Rebecca bent over and plucked up her broken heel. It was as sharp now as the Beast’s monstrous teeth. It was a fang of her very own. She wrapped one hand around the top of her braid, and with her other, brought the heal to its base. With one deep, fluttery inhale, Rebecca began the arduous task of sawing off her braid. Her scalp throbbed and stung, but she did not let up; not even for a second. Her jaw clenched until it felt too big for her mouth. Her fingers squeezed until her knuckles turned snow white – devoid of all blood. But she kept going. Harder and faster until a final slash wrenched the braid loose into her hand. As if in disbelief, Rebecca stole a moment to stare down at her hand, still clenched. She exhaled slowly and uncurled her fingers. It was real. She had done it.
Rebecca choked on her laughter before swallowing it down and running to the window. A handle that must have once been part of a system to open and close a glass pane that no longer existed was there waiting for her, as it had been for days; weeks; months. She knotted one end of her braid onto the handle using a special trick she had learned for tying pales of water securely to thick branches she would have to carry across her shoulders. It was perfect. Rebecca shovelled the rest of the braid out into the cold winter air. Freedom. She looked back at the dingy room that had unsuccessfully masqueraded as her home for so long. She took it all in, smiling, knowing in her heart that she would never see it again. She pulled herself onto the window ledge, kicking off her remaining boot as she did so. Her bare feet would have better grip.
The stone was cold on her toes; colder than the floor inside had been. But that didn’t bother Rebecca. She liked it; the way it perked up every hair on her body; the way it made her feel alive. Carefully, Rebecca lowered herself over the ledge. Her arms stung, begging to give way, but she ignored them as she tensed each and every muscle. Inch by inch, she let herself drop; each time, feeling her stomach scurry up before splashing back down. She kept her toes working to brace her against the exterior wall. The air whisked through her lungs, threatening to dry them up for good. But she resisted the urge to cough and continued her journey downward. When she came to bottom of her braid, she looked down. There was still a tall drop below her, but it was nothing compared to how far she had come. So, with one hard exhale, she pushed off and braced for impact.
The snow was not as soft as she had hoped, nor as hard as she had feared. The thud she landed with pushed air out of her in the form of a white cloud. A white cloud made by fresh air. Free air. Rebecca scrambled to her feet, a little off balance and quite weak in the knees. It would be dawn soon, and she would have a long run ahead of her. Before the thought could become too daunting, Rebecca sprinted into action, but she only got a few feet away before something wrenched her back. Her conscious. Rebecca stood, frozen still, looking to the vastness ahead of her. Thinking about the next girl to stumble onto these irreverent grounds. She turned, slowly, to face the massive body of stone behind her. He was in there. He was in there. He was in there.
Rebecca reached into her pocket and took out her heel. Her fang – now a match for his own. She started back towards the palace. There were no guards out front. It was as if by magic this moment had been given to her. No – she had taken it. Patience, her father always said, was a virtue. Yes, it was a fucking virtue.
Rebecca stormed the palace, a one-woman army, and tore through the halls until she came upon him. No – it. It had its back to her and she was grateful, staying quiet at first. But when the floor creaked beneath her throbbing, bloodied feet she did not waiver. The Beast turned to face Rebecca and she picked up her stride, eyes fixed on the jugular. Recognition and realization flashed in his eyes but, by then, it didn’t matter. Rebecca plunged the heel upwards, deep into his throat. As he gurgled in disbelief, she twisted it. She twisted it again and again and again. This was not simply manic-revenge – it was efficiency. She would not chance his ability to recover. She would make sure the job was done. And when he collapsed, first to his knees, then onto his side, she knew it was. She was on her knees too now, having dropped with him, still holding her weapon deep inside of him. And just like that, it was over. No more girls. No more victims. No more survivors. Death, she knew, was the only true ending a story could have.
With that, Rebecca waltzed back out of the palace, wrapped in the cloak she had ripped from the Beast’s corpse. It would be a long trek home, after all.
© Shyla Fairfax-Owen