Tag Archives: fairy tale

The Beast, Part XVI

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Eli gulped. “He’s the what, now?”

“The king.” Ava beamed.

The door swung open, and a man entered the room. His shoulders filled the doorframe, and he had to duck to enter the room. Despite his imposing frame, his eyes glowed with kindness and joy.

“So this is the man I have to thank?” He pumped Eli’s hand, which seemed the size of a mouse in the King’s massive palm. “I am eternally indebted to you, Eli, shepherd, for the safe return of my daughter.”

“Well, she sort of returned herself.” Eli smiled weakly. “I didn’t do much in the way of bringing her back. She sort of brought me, as she may have told you.”

“But without you, I’d still be a Beast,” Ava interjected. “You’re the only one who had the courage to help me. Give yourself a little credit.”

“Ava told me of what you said to the Prince out in the fields,” the King continued, his face the picture of pleasure. “Never have I met a wiser, more perceptive man.”

“Nonsense,” Eli said. His face was beginning to radiate heat. “I just spoke the truth.”

“And you saved my daughter. Which, if you know her well, you’ll know takes some doing.” Ava and the King shared the same elusive twinkle in the corners of their deep green eyes. “I cannot allow such heroism to go unrewarded. Name your wishes, and I will grant them to the best of my power.”

Eli sat up and thought for a moment. “I should like all the sheep returned to my homeland. My countrymen’s livelihoods depend upon those sheep.”

“Done. And?” The King leaned forward, as if prepared to hang on Eli’s every word.

“I should like my parents to be comfortably settled for the rest of their lives—somewhere in this country, safe from the Prince, and somewhere pretty.”

“Again, done.” The King glanced at Ava. Eli looked at her, her bright eyes watching him anxiously. “Is there…anything else you might want?”

Anything else?” Ava asked. Eli had never heard a voice more hopeful.

Eli looked at his friend. There were still little bruises on her face, but they couldn’t tarnish the whiteness of her skin or dull the light in her eyes. She was every inch a Princess. He kicked himself for not having guessed it before. But he knew she was remarkable, whether she was the daughter of a king or not. If he was very lucky, he thought, she might call herself his Princess—one day.

“If you—if you don’t mind,” Eli said quietly, “I shouldn’t mind getting to know you better.” He smiled. “If that’s all right with—all concerned—‘specially you, er, your highness—I mean, your ladyship—”

“My name is Ava,” she replied, her smile a sunbeam. “And I wouldn’t mind at all.”

 

THE END

The Beast, Part XV

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“Who said they were being eaten?” Ava’s eyes held a mischievous glint.

“Well, what else might have happened to them?” Eli asked, bewildered.

Ava’s smile faded. “Ours is a country of weavers and garment makers. Your Prince was stealing the sheep from his people to give to my father as a peace offering—as if I could be bought with sheep. He stole from his people so that he could have his way with me.”

“The wretch,” Eli growled. “My family was starving—and we weren’t the only ones.” He sighed. “Your father must be a mighty man to need so much appeasing.”

“I should say he is,” Ava replied, her smile electric. “He’s the king.”

The Beast, Part XIV

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When Eli awoke, it took him several minutes to orient himself to his surroundings. The last thing he knew, he was lying in a field at the foot of a pompous Prince. But now it seemed he was in a bed, and the afternoon light was coming in a wide window, and there was a little bit of pressure on his foot.

With some effort (his head and neck were very sore), he strained forward to see Ava sitting at the foot of his bed, smiling at him. She was dressed in white woolen robes trimmed in snowy rabbit fur. Her hand was on his foot.

“Oh, good,” he groaned. “You’re all right. And you’re little again. I mean—littler than a beastie—”

Ava laughed. It was such a musical laugh. “Perhaps the Prince hit you harder than we thought.”

“What happened?”

“Well, while you were speaking,” she said, her green eyes cast downward, “Saying all those lovely things, I started turning back into a person. So when he hit you, there was little I could do to retaliate. Thankfully, father had gotten wind of my return, so he ran out with all of his men to meet me, and caught the Prince just as he was about to hit me.” She beamed at Eli. “The Prince is gone, now, never to return. And you and I are safe.”

“Oh, how lovely.” Eli said, slowly propping himself up on his elbows. “I suppose I’m exiled, then.”

“Most likely.” Ava replied. “I hope you don’t mind too much.”

“No, not at all.” His joyful expression faded as he remembered something very, very important. “But what about my—”

“Parents?” Ava finished. “My father has sent for them. They will be here tomorrow, with all their worldly goods.”

“They’ll travel light, then.” Eli could do nothing to conceal how much this news pleased him. “Your father must be a man of incredible means, then.”

“You might say that.” Ava smiled. In fact, she had not stopped smiling. There was a spark in her deep green eyes now that Eli couldn’t quite interpret.

Eli sat all the way up. His head was quite clear now. Now that his head was so clear, a question came into his mind that had occurred to him earlier but had slipped away after some interruption.

“Ava,” he asked, “if it wasn’t you that was eating the sheep, then what was?”

The Beast, Part XIII

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“YOU WILL NOT TOUCH HIM,” Ava bellowed. “OR ME, FOR THAT MATTER. RUN HOME, LITTLE WOLF, WITH YOUR TAIL BETWEEN YOUR LEGS. ALL YOUR MEN DID. WHY DON’T YOU FOLLOW THEM?”

“Avaline, come back with me,” the Prince said. “Lay aside this foolish anger. With me you will have all you ever need.” He smiled up at her.

Ava snarled and took a heavy step forward, the scythe-like claws coming dangerously close to the Prince, who stood with sword drawn. “LIAR.”

“Ava, Ava. Look at you. You’re a freak of nature.” His smile was one part pity and three parts condescension. “One little cut and you balloon into a monster. Ava, dearest, if you come home and marry me, I will even overlook your monstrous tendencies. No other man can promise you that.” More of that smile. “Come, change back, and let me see your pretty face.”

“If her pretty face is all you want to see,” Eli yelled down at the Prince from his vantage point, “then what makes you think you’re worthy of her?”

“Silence, boy, the grown-ups are talking.”

“No,” Eli cried, and slid down Ava’s mighty arm to stand nose-to-nose with the offending Prince. “No, I will not be silent. You only see her beauty, but I have seen much more. I know intelligence when I see it. Do you know how clever she is? No. Do you know how much she can endure? No. Do you know how bravely she faces death? No. Do you know the expression in her eyes when she hears a lovely bit of music? No.”

The Prince’s mouth hung open, gaping in astonishment. The sight encouraged Eli.

“In short, your majesty, you have no claim on this creature behind me, for you know nothing about how beautiful she really is. I saw how lovely she was before I knew she was a human—before I knew she was a girl—and I’m no hero. I’m just a shepherd,” Eli said, almost apologetically, “but by all I hold dear, I stand for this girl, this creature, that stands behind me, if only so she won’t have to stand alone against the likes of you.”

Without blinking, the Prince snapped his mouth shut and struck Eli on the side of the head. The field went black, and Eli did not see what happened next.

The Beast, Part XII

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There was a crackling from the forest’s edge and the rumble of frantic little goat hooves against the ground. Avaline and Eli whirled around to see men on horseback barreling from the woods, sabers and lances drawn and down. At their head, the handsome Prince, his eyes blazing with jealous rage.

“Run!” Ava cried, and Eli needed no encouragement. They sprinted down the field, the horses hot on their heels. Lances thudded into the earth around them. One grazed Ava’s shoulder, and she toppled to the ground.

Eli drove his heels into the ground, standing over her with his knife drawn. He made up his mind that he would not touch her. Never again. Not while he drew breath.

He found himself borne into the air, higher and higher. The horses below him reared and whinnied in fear, and all but the Prince ran from the sight of the thing that carried Eli on its shoulders. Ava was a Beast once more. And she was angry. 

The Beast, Part XI

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“What happened to you, Ava?” Eli asked.

Ava’s smile slipped away. She reached down and started tugging blades of grass from the ground with jerky movements. Her jaw clenched.

“The Prince barged into my father’s home and demanded my hand. I and my father said no, but he would not take ‘no’ for an answer. He took me away, sneaking into my room at night.” She shook. “He bore me over the mountains, far from my home, smuggled me into his castle. Not even your King and Queen knew I was there.

“He said that I had no choice but to agree to marry him. Still I refused. I fought him tooth and nail. One night I ran away, but his men brought me back. I even lied and told him I was betrothed to someone else.

“He flew into a rage, screaming that if he couldn’t have me, no one would. Then he stabbed me. Neither of us were prepared for what happened next.

“I turned into that thing. There is an old fairy blessing that protects my family from harm. None of us knew how it worked, since we all live such charmed lives, but it seems that bodily harm turns us into creatures capable of protecting ourselves.

“My new shape terrified me. I burst through a stone wall and ran as far as I could and found the cavern. I could not go back—I could not go home, not as I was—and then they began to hunt me. I didn’t want to hurt anyone, so I frightened them all away. All of them except you.” She looked at him, her gaze a question. “Why weren’t you frightened of me?”

“Well, I was—”

“At first, yes, but after a while you weren’t afraid at all. Why?”

Eli shrugged. “Any beast that loved music as well as you did couldn’t be too fearsome.” He smiled at her, pulling out his ever-present pipe. “Before the Prince came banging on my door, I made up a song to play for you. I haven’t had a chance to play it until now. May I?”

Ava nodded, and closed her eyes, her head tilted up to the sun. The music wound around them both, and even the trees leaned in to listen.  

The Beast, Part X

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As dawn crept into morning, they finally hit the level ground. They came upon a farm with goats clambering over a sunny green hillock beside. The girl knocked and begged for provisions, which they found shoved into their humbly outstretched hands. Cheese and bread and a flask of something fruity. After walking a ways, they sat on a rock in the sun. Eli ate rapidly, suddenly aware of how hungry he was. The girl gnawed on her food like a starved animal—which in many ways she resembled.

They sat, brushing crumbs from themselves and basking in the morning light. The sun brought temporary warmth to an otherwise chilly day.

“Where are we bound?” Eli asked.

“My father’s house,” she answered. “He will protect us. The Prince will not give up so easily, but my people have ways of keeping wolves at bay.”

Eli nodded. He was silent for a while, hesitating to ask the next question on his lips. But she was looking steadily at him, as though anticipating what he was going to say.

“What is your name?”

“Avaline.” She smiled. “But you may call me Ava.”

The Beast, Part IX

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“Run? Run where?”

“To the back of the cave. There’s a way out. Quickly!”  Her bare feet carried her swiftly over the rocks. Eli stumbled behind.

“Wait! Why are we running?”

“The Prince,” she called. “There’s no way he’ll let me get away this easily. Since you were seen with me, he’ll call you an accomplice and have you killed. For your own sake, boy, run!”

And they ran. They ducked through long winding tunnels that echoed with the cries of bats and fouler creatures. They reached a tiny chink in the cave wall and squirmed through, tumbling out into the night.

“Where are we?” Eli gasped.

“The other side of the mountain,” the girl panted, her hands on her scabbed knees. “At least, I hope we are. Come on.” She grabbed his hand and pulled him down the mountainside, deeper and deeper into the valley below.

The sun rose in a rush of crimson. In the heat of the journey, Eli had forgotten it was winter. Now that they were advancing at a quick march instead of a sprint, he became aware of how cold it was. So did the girl. She shivered in her rags, her skin goosebumped and pale, but she did not hug herself to get warm, nor did she allow her teeth to chatter. She only marched forward relentlessly, dragging Eli behind her.

“Aren’t you cold?” he asked after a long space of silence. “Stop a moment, and I’ll give you my coat.”

“Not important,” she said, shaking her mane of tangled brown hair, not even turning to look at him. “I’ve got to get home. I’ve got to get away from him. I can’t stop to get warm.”

“Where are you from?”

“I am from the country next to yours. We are garment makers and weavers. Your Prince came to our land in search of a bride, and he found me pretty.” Here she turned enough where Eli could see her profile. She was watching the sun to get her bearings, but her face had hardened into an unreadable mask. “He stole me away.”

“Most girls would envy your position,” Eli said tentatively.

She stopped, breathing hard, her hand over the gash in her side. She looked at the sun awhile, panting, before she looked Eli in the eye again.

“I did not want him. Perhaps had he spoken to me, asked me questions—or even asked my name—I might have considered giving myself willingly. But he did not. Love is not love when taken by force.”

She swallowed hard and turned away, plunging down the mountain to the valley below. 

The Beast, Part VIII

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“Where am I?” the girl asked groggily. She blinked as one who’d been asleep a long time. “What am I?”

“Ah—well—you were a great hairy beast a few minutes ago—well, a big dead one, anyway—but you’re pretty, now—I mean, pretty human now…”

The girl held her hands in front of her face, rubbing the fingers together. She smiled.  

There was a rustle in the woods beyond the cavern’s mouth. The girl sat up suddenly, peering into the dark.

“Did someone follow you?”

“No, why would anyone—”

“Someone followed you. Look.”

One of the Prince’s soldiers was staring at them from behind a tree. He jumped up and fled back into the woods.

“A scout,” she hissed. “Or a spy. Or both. Well, Eli,” she said, gripping the shepherd’s shoulder and pulling herself to her feet. “It seems we only have one choice left for us.”

“And what might that be?” Eli gulped again. Something about the girl was far more fearsome than the Beast she’d been a few moment before. It was a nice sort of fearsome.

She leveled her glittering green eyes on his and said: “We run.”

The Beast, Part VII

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Eli rocked back on his heels, staring numbly at his fallen friend. He let the dagger slide from his limp hands. He reached out and stroked the hide of fur and scales, sad that the Beast was gone, but glad that it was no longer hurting.

Slowly, he stood to his feet and turned, walking heavily towards the cave’s mouth.

There was a flash of light and a crack like stone splitting. A rush of wind knocked him to his knees, and another gust sent him sprawling. He rolled to his back and sat up, gawking at what he saw occurring behind him.

The Beast’s body was shrinking. Not so much shrinking as it was deflating like a feed sack emptied of its contents. All that remained was a massive hide, crumpled like cast-off clothes on the floor of the cave. The hide had collapsed flat, save for one small lump in the very center.

The lump stirred.

Eli crept back to the body of the Beast. Mustering his courage and bracing himself for whatever it was he might see, he pulled back a layer of hide to reveal what lay beneath.

He saw a girl. She was curled into a defensive ball, dressed in rags. In the dim light of the cave, Eli saw bruises and scratches marring the whiteness of her skin. Her hair was a tangled mass of brown.

There was a deep gash in her side, but she was breathing. Eli shook her gently. Her eyes opened—they were green as the sunset on summer grass.

Eli gulped.

“Miss? Miss?” he whispered. “Are—are you alright?”

The Beast, Part VI

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Word of Eli’s nightly battles reached the ears of the Prince, who decided to visit the village with an entourage of soldiers. They arrived at his door while he was sleeping during the day, as had become his habit. The Prince gave several sturdy knocks before Eli came to the door, rubbing his eyes and yawning.

“May I speak to Eli, the shepherd?”

“Present, your lordship,” said Eli, quickly standing at attention.

“Ah, yes. Good to meet you. There have been some interesting rumors about you, Eli, and these rumors have brought me to your door. I hear that you fight the Beast every night in the woods.”

“This is true, sire.”

“And have you had any success?”

“I have learned that fighting the creature is a fruitless activity,” Eli said. “It is not the Beast who eats our sheep. Its cavern is full of wolf bones, but not a sheep skeleton is in sight.”

“I see,” replied the Prince, stroking his royal beard. “So what do you do up there, night after night? Does it not try to kill you? Why hasn’t it followed you into the village? Surely you realize your behavior is endangering the people of your country.”

“It does not try to kill me,” Eli said, swallowing hard. “It wants to hear the music I play on my pipe. My nightly concerts prevent it from entering the village. Otherwise…I do not know what it would do.”

“Precisely,” said the Prince with a diplomatic smile. “Regardless of whether or not the Beast is eating our sheep, it must be exterminated. In the morning, you will guide me and my men to the creature’s hideout, and we will rid the nation of this menace once and for all. Until tomorrow, sir,” said the Prince, and he left Eli’s home to make camp in an adjacent field.

Eli knew he had to warn the Beast. In the darkest part of midnight, he sallied to the woods.

Panting from exertion, he reached the Beast’s cave.

“My friend,” he gasped, “the Prince is here, and he means to have your head mounted over his fireplace. Tomorrow he will come here and kill you—he has ordered me to lead him here. I cannot disobey him. Those who disobey royal decrees meet death. Oh, my friend, you must run, and run tonight.”

The Beast looked up at him forlornly. It was collapsed on the floor of its cave, breathing heavily.

“I CANNOT RUN, ELI,” it groaned, its voice a shadow of what it had been. “I CAN HARDLY EVEN BREATHE. THE DAGGER HURTS TOO MUCH, AND I AM SO…TIRED…”

“But you must,” Eli cried in desperation. “I cannot stand by and watch them kill you. I cannot stop them. They will come and…and…”

The Beast’s great green eyes were fixed on his. They counted his tears and his sorrowful glances to the ground.

“DRAW THE DAGGER OUT, MY FRIEND.”

Eli stared at the Beast. “But I can’t. You said you’d die if that dagger came out.”

“I WILL,” replied the Beast. “BUT I WOULD RATHER DIE AT YOUR HAND THAN AT THE HANDS OF HEARTLESS STRANGERS.” The creature smiled a small, rueful smile.

“I can’t…”

“YOU MUST,” it said, “FOR MY SAKE, ELI. PLEASE.”

Eli stepped forward, slowly, hesitatively. The Beast would not take its eyes from his face, even as he knelt beside its heaving chest, even as he placed one hand gently on its ribs and wrapped the other around the dagger’s hilt.  Its eyes remained fixed on him, even as he gave the dagger a sharp tug and pulled it free.

The Beast sighed. The lanterns extinguished, and its head sank to the ground. 

The Beast, Part V

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Eli told no one about his activities in the forest. Not even his parents. When asked, he would say he went up to fight the Beast. Which he was, technically—fighting it with music. And the Beast did so love to fight.

Before too many weeks had passed, and the sheep were still disappearing, the people of the village began to suspect there was more to Eli’s story.

Yet every night, Eli went up the mountain to play music for the Beast. The Beast came out of its cave every night and reclined in front of him while he played, closing its eyes and nodding its massive hairy head. But every night, the Beast took longer to crawl from its cavern. It seemed tired and increasingly haggard.

“What do you do all day, Beast?” asked Eli one evening.

“I HUNT,” replied the Beast, its voice lower than usual. “A BEAST MUST EAT, AFTER ALL.”

“More sheep, I suppose.”

The Beast shook its head wearily. “NO, BOY, IT IS NOT I WHO TAKES THE SHEEP IN THE NIGHT. LOOK AROUND YOU. YOU SEE WOLF SKULLS AND WOLF BONES, BUT NOT A SHEEP CARCASS IN SIGHT. I’VE DONE MY BEST TO KEEP THE WOLVES AWAY FROM YOUR SHEEP, BUT MY WORK MUST BE IN VAIN IF THEY KEEP DISAPPEARING.” It laid its great shaggy head on the ground at Eli’s feet. “THAT IS WHY I AM SO TIRED. WOLVES ARE PERILOUS HARD TO CATCH, AND THE DAGGER HURTS SO.”

“You are not the one who eats our sheep?” Eli said in astonishment.

“NO,” it replied, and heaved a tired sigh, closing its green eyes.

Cautiously, Eli reached out and touched the Beast on the bridge of its nose. Even his whole hand, stretched to full span, could not cover it. The ground rumbled as a purr rattled in the Beast’s chest.

“You never really planned on killing my family, did you?”

“NO.”

“Then why did you threaten me?”

“THE MUSIC WAS SO LOVELY, AND I WAS SO LONELY,” the Beast said sorrowfully. “BUT I AM A MONSTER. WHAT ELSE COULD I DO THAT WOULD HAVE INDUCED YOU TO COME, NIGHT AFTER NIGHT, AND PLAY YOUR PIPE FOR ME?”

“You might’ve said ‘please’.”

The great green eyes opened again, and studied him carefully. “DO YOU BELIEVE WHAT I HAVE TOLD YOU? THAT IT IS NOT I THAT STEALS THE SHEEP?”

“I do,” Eli replied. “You are a beast, but you are no monster.”

“THANK YOU, FRIEND,” said the Beast, pulling itself slowly to its feet. As it lumbered into its den, it cast a questioning glance over its shoulder. “WILL YOU COME AGAIN TOMORROW, EVEN THOUGH YOU KNOW THERE IS NO DANGER TO YOUR PARENTS?”

“I will,” Eli said. “I promise.”

The Beast, Part IV

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Every night for a week, Eli returned to play his pipe for the Beast. The first few nights he almost didn’t return, so fearful was he of the green lights glowing in the cavern’s depths and he had no desire to see the rest of the creature. But it never emerged from its den—it only listened to his music until it fell asleep.

The townsfolk wondered what he was up to. Every night, curious eyes peered at him through cracked shutters. Fellow shepherds waved at him as he walked by them on his way to the mountains, only to turn and look at one another suspiciously once he was out of sight. It was one thing to go up once to slay the monster. But night after night, returning without so much as a scratch? That was a mystery.

And the sheep still disappeared.

One night, Eli stopped his playing after one particularly sad song. The earth beneath him hummed from the deep, rumbling purr emanating from the cave. The lights were out—the Beast’s eyes were shut.

“Are you really as terrible as the Prince said?”

The lights flashed open, wide and round. “I AM QUITE TERRIBLE. I’M SURE WHATEVER HE SAID WAS TRUE. WHAT DID HE SAY?”

“Something about having the face of a lion and the hide of a dragon—or something like that.” It occurred to Eli how insulting the whole description might sound.

A rasping chuckle. “WELL, PERHAPS YOU SHOULD SEE FOR YOURSELF.”

The Beast slowly climbed out into the moonlight. First Eli saw its massive paws with claws like scythes gleaming in the silvery light. Its hide was covered in both fur and scales of a deep orange, like the last glow of an ember. Then he saw its face—it was indeed the face of a lion, only exaggerated and with pointed ears, with great, sharp tusks protruding from its lower jaw. A ridge of fur and spikes marked its spine, and a long, scaly tail lashed behind it. It stood taller than the steeple of the village chapel, and its glowing green eyes beamed down on him in half-lidded disinterest.

“WELL, BOY? WHAT DO YOU THINK? SUFFICIENTLY TERRIFYING?”

Eli realized now that his jaw was hanging slack. He closed his mouth, sputtered, then gasped out, “Y-yes, indeed. Terrible. Terrible and fearsome and sort of—”

He hesitated. Something surprised him.

“WHAT? SORT OF WHAT?”

“Well—lovely. In your own monstrous way.”

The Beast blinked.

“Or handsome. Whichever you prefer.”

The Beast said nothing. It only turned around and prepared to lumber back into its cave. Eli spotted something in the Beast’s scaly, furry hide.

“Is that a dagger in your side?”

“YES,” said the Beast, its voice lower than usual. “AS I’M SURE YOUR PRINCE INFORMED YOU, HE DID ME THE COURTESY OF WOUNDING ME IN OUR…ENCOUNTER.”

“It looks awfully uncomfortable.”

“IT BURNS,” said the Beast.

“I could pull it out for you, if you wa—”

“NO!” the creature roared. “PULL IT OUT AND I WILL DIE! SUCH IS THE WAY OF MAGICAL BEASTS—HIT US IN ONE SPOT, WE PERISH, BUT ONLY IF THE BLADE IS REMOVED. DON’T SPEAK OF IT AGAIN!”

“Alright, alright. Just trying to help.”

The Beast snorted disdainfully. “GOODNIGHT, BOY. THANK YOU FOR THE MUSIC. I WILL SEE YOU TOMORROW…OR ELSE.”

And it disappeared into the dark.

The Beast, Part III

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Eli stared into the twin green lights, hypnotized. Fear and wonder pulsed through his veins as his pipe slid from his fingers and into his lap.

“I—uh—er—that is—I—”

“SPEAK UP, LITTLE MAN, WHILE YOU’RE STILL ABLE.”

Eli swallowed hard, then started rambling.

“My name is Eli and I’m a shepherd from the village at the foot of the mountain all of my sheep have been eaten and we’re going to starve if I don’t get the reward they’ve put on your head I’m terribly sorry for—”

“GOODNESS, BOY, DIDN’T ANYONE EVER TEACH YOU THE VALUE OF PUNCTUATION? TAKE A BREATH. YOU’RE MAKING ME NERVOUS.”

Eli drew in a shuddering breath, his eyes still fixed on the green glowing lights in the cave. They went out for a moment, then returned. The creature blinked.

“NOW, TRY THAT AGAIN FROM THE BEGINNING. SLOWLY.”

“My name is Eli. I am one of the shepherds that live in the valley below your mountain. Our sheep are disappearing—we can only assume you’re the one eating them—and the Prince has put a prince on your head. All of my sheep are gone, and we will starve unless I bring back your head.” Eli took another breath, slow and deep. “I’m between a bit of a rock and a hard place, you see.”

“I KNEW ABOUT THE PRICE ON MY HEAD. I’VE SENT MANY OF YOUR BOYS AWAY SCREAMING AFTER THEY POLITELY INFORMED ME THEY HAD COME TO KILL ME.” The Beast made a rasping sound Eli could only interpret as a chuckle.

“WHO IS ‘WE’?”

Eli jumped. He had fully expected to have been devoured by now. “What?”

“YOU SAID ‘WE’ WOULD STARVE IF YOU DIDN’T GET THE REWARD MONEY FOR MY HEAD. WHO IS ‘WE’, BOY? ANSWER ME.”

“My parents and I. They cannot work anymore, and you’ve eaten our livelihood. Believe me, I wouldn’t be up here if this weren’t my only option.” Eli gulped. “You’ve got to admit, you’ve brought this on yourself.”

The Beast gave a loud “HARRUMPH”, then remained silent for a long, long moment.  

“WELL, BOY, I HAVE NO CHOICE BUT TO KILL YOU. AS YOU CAN SEE BY THE SKELETONS I USE IN MY DECORATING, I FIND KILLING TO BE AN EASY HOBBY. PREPARE YOUSELF FOR THE WORST.”

Eli tensed and prepared to run with every ounce of strength he had.

“UNLESS…”

He opened his eyes. He hadn’t been aware he’d been squeezing them tightly shut up until that point.

“Unless what?”

“IF YOU PROMISE TO COME AND PLAY YOUR PIPE FOR ME EVERY DAY, I WILL ALLOW YOU TO LIVE.”

“And what about the sheep? Will you promise to stop eating them?”

The Beast let loose an awful roar that shook Eli’s bones and made the rocks leap on the ground.

“DON’T PUSH YOUR LUCK, LITTLE MAN. BE GRATEFUL I AM LETTING YOU WALK AWAY ALIVE. IF YOU DO NOT RETURN TOMORROW, I WILL HUNT YOU DOWN AND DEVOUR YOU AND YOUR FAMILY. THAT IS MY PROMISE. NOW GO! LEAVE ME TO MY SLEEP. GO!”

With that, Eli pelted down the mountainside as fast as his skinny legs would carry him.