The cape billowed about her, flapping in time to the pace of the horse’s canter. Under the hooves, the frosty snow crunched and horseshoe shaped prints were left in the fresh covering of flakes. She clung to the reins as the steed hurtled through the forest along the frozen path.
She did not know where the horse was taking her. The faithful creature had arrived without mount at the cottage, steam snorting out of his nostrils. Belle in a state of panic, had climbed up and tugged on the reins.
“Find him, Tyne. Take me to him!” she had commanded.
The horse understood and set off at instant gallop back into the woods.
Everyone knew of the old castle with his high walls, steep roofs and dark windows. Nobody from the village knew who lived there but there were always stories and myths to tell.
Tyne took Belle right up the iron gates of the castle and neighed at them, pushing his nose at the metal rails.
Bella dismounted and leaned on one of the gates. It gave and gradually moved enough for her to slip through the gap.
“Go home, Tyne!” she hissed at the horse. He had to be persuaded with a nudge of her hand. “I’ll be fine. My father has to be here somewhere.”
The horse faltered and then turned about, slowly walking back into the dim forest. The daylight was almost gone.
Bella approached the great oak door and with renewed purposed thumped on the wood, swung the knocker and then pounded with her fists.
“Open up!” she hollered.
The man who opened the door was tall and gaunt in stature. His head seemed overly large for his body. Belle thought he resembled a candlestick. He did not welcome her in but neither did he prevent her from rushing into the massive hallway.
Belle ignored the marble floors and sweeping staircase. “My father, he is here, isn’t he?” she asked.
“Your father?” the man repeated unhelpfully.
A woman scurried, wiping her hands on an apron. Her rotund figure was a contrast to his slender one and she place a hand on hip, rather like a teapot, mused Bella frustrated with the lack of concern shown by the castle’s inhabitants.
“His horse led me here. I know he is here,” stated Bella.
“Oh, the man who fell of his horse,” nodded the woman. “Yes, he is upstairs. Banged his head.”
Belle gasped. “He will be alright? I must see him.”
“The master says he will recover.”
“I must see him.” Belle charged passed the couple and before they could prevent her, she hurried up the stairs, calling for her father.
Many doors were locked, but she found one that creaked open and was very dimly lit. On a wide bed, swathed in blankets, lay the pale figure of her father. His balding head patched up with bandages, his sunken eyes shut and unmoving.
“Oh, Papa!” exclaimed Belle, leaning over to touch his clammy skin. “What happened to you?”
The gruff voice spoke from the shadows of the room. The tiny candle by the bed barely cast enough light for Belle to see her father.
“He was found by the gates. He will live,” growled the speaker.
Belle jumped up. “Who are you?”
“The master of this castle,” came the foreboding reply. “When he recovers, he must stay here.”
“Why?” asked Belle, peering at a looming figure hidden in the darkness.
“Because he has seen me.”
“No, please, you have to let him go. He will say nothing. He will be grateful for your help. Please you can trust him.”
The man, for Belle knew the tone was of masculine kind, breathed a deep sigh.
“He may go as long as you stay. You will be my safeguard.”
Belle glanced down at her beleaguered father and knew she had to agree. “Very well. I will stay in his place. I promise.”
She lay next to her father, whispering words of comfort and began to drift into sleep. She did not hear the other depart but in the morning light, she awoke to see her father stirring.
The woman brought up food and with nourishment, Belle’s father quickly recovered. His face fell when she told him of the arrangement.
“You cannot stay here, Belle. I forbid it. He is a monster,” said her father.
“I have made a promise, Papa, I must stay. Go back and be with my sisters. They need you more. They are younger and helpless without you.”
They argued, but her father had to concede there was nothing he could do to persuade Belle to leave with him.
Wrapped in a cloak on a borrowed horse, he bade farewell to his daughter in the courtyard. There was no sign of their host.
Tears streamed down Belle’s face and she turned away to enter the castle. Now it was her prison.
It took time to adapt to life in a fortress. The woman – Celia – and the man – Norris – were the housekeeper and butler respectfully and they seemed to be her only company. The master, the prince of the castle, made no appearance for the first few days.
Belle learnt her way around the castle and its grounds. She was given a wardrobe of clothes, regular food and pleasant bedroom to sleep in at night. She found little else to do and Celia let her help in the kitchens or embroider napkins to pass the time. Many rooms were locked and unused.
Belle stumbled upon the master of the castle one day a week after she had arrived. There was light and warmth in the great library and she had not noticed the occupant of the high backed armchair. When she saw him, she dropped her book with shock and took several paces back.
He rose up, a mountain of a man but with a stooped back and slightly bent knees. What struck her dumb was his skin, which was covered in a multitude of dark hair, like fur. All about his face, around the eyes and nose and the backs of his hands. Tufts stuck up around his neck and his beard went down to his chest. His fingernails were gnarled and long, his booted feet enormous in scale.
“Please do not fear me,” he said in a quiet voice. “I will not harm you. Now you know why you cannot leave and why your father must remain silent. If the villagers knew of me, they would storm the castle and have me locked away as a freak of nature.”
“Nature did this too you?”
“It is a curse. My body does not know how to tame my hairs. They grow and grow. They burden me and I have no heart to face people.”
Belle felt a pang of pity, but she also wished to be free of her captivity. “Please let me go, I promise I will say nothing.”
“I do not know you, young lady. How can I trust you?”
“I will prove to you I am honest. Give me a month to prove to you and then let me go.”
The man pondered her request. “Very well. One month.”
“Thank you. What shall I call you?”
He accepted her company and showed Belle his collection of books. Belle took some to read. He joined her in the great dining room and ate his meals in her company. The servants were unfazed by his hairy features and said nothing about them. The room echoed with the sound of dishes and cutlery, however, there was little conversation.
Belle tolerated her host. But she could not look at him for fear she might show her repugnance at his form. Once they dined together, they separated and she rarely saw Thomas.
Belle grew bored. A young woman accustomed to keeping house, she did not take well to the lack of occupation. She resented her situation even though she had negotiated an exit route. She became rude and sullen to Celia and Norris, making a fuss about inconsequential matters.
When the weather improved, she stomped about the garden and returning indoors with mud caked on her boots. She deliberately made a pattern of footsteps on the marble floors. Finding a sliver salver, she slid down the stairs on it, making a clatter and dinting the metal ware. She slammed doors, frowned and generally lost all of her natural good humour.
Her patience had gone first, then she let her appearance became unkempt and she could not be bothered to tidy her long hair. To Thomas she became indifferent and ignored him until one day he called her to the library.
Belle stood with her arms folded and tried not to stare at his face. The hairs twitched and she did not know what expression he was pulling.
“We had an agreement, Belle, that you would show me your worth and I would let you go. I am sorry to say, with two weeks to go, unless you change your ways, I have no intention of letting you go. You are rude and ungracious.”
Belle gawped at him. “What!”
“I have given you whatever you asked – the fine clothes and books from my precious library. You could have drawn pictures, made music, tendered the garden. Instead, you have made mischief. Disrupted the calmness of my home. Even my loyal servants have complained to me of your demands on their busy time.”
Her mouth opened and shut. She could not deny her behaviour had sunk in the previous days to a level her father would never had tolerated.
“I’m sorry,” she said pitifully. “I will be better.”
“Will you. Will you truly change?”
“Yes. Please let me prove it to you!” said Bella adamantly.
The next week Belle underwent a transformation. She spoke graciously to the servants, helped in the kitchen and with the laundry. At mealtimes, she dismissed any doubts she might have had about her host’s intentions and spoke to him as if he was any other man. They discussed books, the life in the forest, which Thomas seemed to have a great deal of knowledge about.
“As a young boy, before I was orphaned, I was fascinated with flora and fauna of the woods. Then I was afflicted with my monstrous condition and stayed indoors,” he said smiling at first and then his face became downcast at his last sentence.
Belle did well to distract him and drew him out of his shell. They danced to imaginary music in the disused ballroom, found viols to play upon and read aloud to each other before a raging fire. At night she would let him kiss the back of her hand before she retired. His tender touch had a strange impact on her emotions. Something she had never felt before in her mood and body.
During one intimate dance, for the first time, she saw the intense blueness of his eyes. They were kind eyes, not the fearsome ones of a beast or monster. They twinkled at her from behind their hairy surroundings. She liked them. If she looked at his eyes, she forgot about the rest of him.
Another day passed and Belle remained on her best behaviour. However, during the night she had a bad dream. She saw visions of her father ailing once again. Waking early, before the others of the household, Belle made a decision. She had to find out if her dream was a vision or not. Selecting a fast horse from the stables, she set off in the dim light of the dawn and rode to her father’s cottage.
Entering the small abode, she heard weeping, her sisters rushed to greet her and confirmed her worst fears. Her father was unwell. For two days and nights she nursed him in his feverish state. When he came to his senses, he found his eldest daughter bending over his bed.
“Belle, what are you doing here!” he said hoarsely.
“Father, I had to come. I saw you sick in a dream.”
“You’ve broken your promise to the beast,” he said fearfully.
“He isn’t a beast. He is called Thomas and he is a good man,” said Belle. “You are right, I made a promise. I will return to him.”
Reassured her father was recovering and leaving instructions to her sisters, Belle made haste back to the castle. As she rode, she wondered if Thomas would be angry with her. She recalled his blue eyes and realised she missed his company more than she had anticipated.
Thomas was pacing the library when she found him and he stopped in his tracks when she entered the room.
“Belle! Where have you been? I thought I had lost you!” he cried out. “I have not eaten for fear that you had come to harm.”
“My father was sick. I went to nurse him better.”
“Why did you not tell me? Ask permission?”
“I’ve come back,” pointed out Belle.
“You broke your promise to me though. You left the castle.”
“I didn’t think you would let me go,” she stuttered.
Thomas could not hide his disappointment from Belle. His shoulders appeared even more slumped than usual. “I expected better of you, Belle. I hoped you could trust me as much as I thought I could trust you. If you had asked I would have let you visit him.”
Belle now understood she had been misguided in her opinions of Thomas. He was not a monster nor uncaring. He appeared genuinely distressed by her sudden disappearance. She had not thought of how her absence would effect him.
“I’m sorry,” said Belle. “I did not mean to upset you. I missed you. Truly.” said Belle quickly.
She moved over to the oak chest by the bay window and reached down to press her palms on it. Bent over, her bottom faced him.
“Please, punish me for being disrespectful.” Belle spoke the words with as much sincerity as she could muster. His words had struck her deeply. Before she had arrived at the castle, she had never been this disobedient or inconsiderate to those about her.
“Very well.” Thomas understood her request.
She had no idea was to expect. He appeared to be withered by his condition, as if the weight of his furry skin contracted his body. However, as he lifted up her skirt, she wondered if his appearance was misleading. The skirt and petticoat draped over her back, exposing her white undergarments.
Nervously she waited as he took up position by her side. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a raised hand.
Belle shrieked. His hand was hard and landed on her bottom with accuracy on her sit-spot. He did not stop and seemed to quickly establish a pace and swing. Leaning on the chest, her feet kicked back when he spanked each cheek of her bottom in turn.
Then he stopped and she breathed a sigh of relief, the pain was bearable and would dissipate quickly. Moving to stand up, his hand pushed her back down.
“Oh no, Belle, that spanking was to warm your tender bottom. Now it is ready for me to begin properly.”
To her horror, his hand touched her waistband and drew down her drawers to her knees. A cool rush of air hit her heated bottom. Her flesh was bared to him and she had yet to feel the full force of his hand. His height and physique were fully appreciated by her. He was not weakened by his condition: under his hairs she envisaged rippling muscles and hidden strength.
Tears seeped down her hot cheeks and she wriggled her bottom at him after each smack, trying to alleviate the searing handprints.
“I will be good. I will never ignore you again,” she said tearfully, as much to herself as to him.
“I know you won’t,” he said softly, landing the last slap. “I think you can be something special if you put your mind to it, Belle.”
Shakily, Belle rose up and quickly fiddled with her attire, trying to regain her decency. Thomas had turned away.
Unsure as to what to do, she crept closer to him and looked him firmly in the eyes. Nearer she moved, until she could touch him and in a moment of impromptu action, she rested her head on his broad chest.
His thumping heart beats could be heard clearly. He was man, she thought, like all others.
“Thank you,” she whispered. “I will not fail you again.”
The last day of their agreement was reached, and Belle was convinced he would let her go. They went for a walk in the garden. Spring was arriving and birds were busy calling to each other.
“I have decided to release you,” said Thomas. “You have proved to me your honour and I will keep my side of the bargain.”
“Thank you,” said Belle. The she drew herself up and looked at his bright eyes. “But I don’t wish to leave. I want to stay and keep you company.”
Thomas looked down at her in amazement. “You do?” he said disbelievingly.
“Yes, I do,” said Belle with conviction. “Since you spanked me, I have wanted to prove not just to you, but to me also, that that I am worthy of you. I have come to be fond of you, Thomas. In fact I should say very fond of you.” Belle blushed.
Thomas hesitated and then taking her in his arms, he lowered his lips to her face. Belle opened her mouth, happy for him to take his pleasure and enjoy it back.
About them, as they kissed, his hairs began to slip away. The breeze picked them up like feathers and they swirled about them in a haze of fur. More and more fell away from his skin, not just to face but the back of his hands too. His beard landed on his feet in one mass. Belle opening her eyes, discovered a different man in form standing before her.
No hairs adorned his face, only a short covering over his scalp. His neck had become bare and nothing stuck up from under his clothing.
Thomas peered down his body in clear disbelief. Shaking each leg and arm in turn, more hairs dropped away, forming a fibrous puddle on the grass below him.
“Heavens, I never thought it was possible, for the curse to be lifted. I didn’t believe it could work.”
“What work?” asked Belle confused.
“That the kiss of love would free me from my affliction.”
Belle smiled at the young man before her. His handsome features exposed and youthful body now straight and upright. She reach up to his face. “Let me make absolutely sure,” she said light-heartedly.
The next kiss was longer and with it went a roving of hands and caresses. The hairs remained at his feet and his skin smooth.
“Thank you, Belle,” he murmured as she rested against him.
Belle’s family came to live in the large castle after their wedding. The locked rooms were opened, grand balls were held with invitations sent out to all about in the country.
Her father, who had not said a word about his daughter’s captivity, stood proudly watching as his daughter danced with her princely husband. He was sure she would be behave, after all he knew the best method for keeping her in check and, months previously, on the day of his departure from castle, he had hinted at it to the man who had saved his life. “If you need to keep her obedient, remember to apply your hand to her rear end, young man.”
Thomas had nodded and smiled back. “Thank you, I will see how she fares before I put my hand to good use.”