BEAUTY KILLED THE BEAST
I woke much too early. Another night of fitful dreams and haunting memories. Lovers of ages past, enemies long rotted, battles won, treasures claimed, fortunes lost, lifetimes wasted. I’d given up that existence, walked away from it, but it came back to torment me all the same.
Half a bottle of the red ere breakfast. When sleep denies you, what else is there to do but drink? The rest to wash away the unpleasant aftertaste of a morning meal of salty broth, dry bread, rancid butter, and lukewarm ale. Afterward, I had called for another red, just to pass the morning hours with a semblance of company. Not much for conversation but willing to give me its all. No friend better.
The sun was nearing its zenith when my second bottle ran empty. I called for more. The innkeep gave me that sour look that precedes a nay, but the gold five-sovereign I set spinning upon the table—more than most men could hope to make in a year—convinced him otherwise. The old me would have demanded music and women to go with the wine, but that man was gone, buried deep in distant lands, forgotten.
It would be my third for the day. Nothing to write home about, but the local vintage was sour, heavy, and generally disagreeable. I told the innkeep to bring me something else, something more to my liking. What would please Master, the fawning bastard asked. Surprise me, I told him. The old me would kill if the surprise weren’t to my liking. The new me wouldn’t.
The man was all smiles and helpfulness now that he had the measure of my true worth. Greed and fear. Gold and magic. The sovereign and the spell that would keep it spinning until the end of the world if I so desired. Why had I done that? Set the coin spinning. Why indeed? Old habits, bad habits. Both die hard. No more to it.
I was cradling my second—or third—brandy. Something local made from plum. Too thick. Too sweet. Too heady. Poorly made, watered down, sugared, and spiked. The worst kind. It mingled with the sourness already inside me and threatened to upset my precarious equilibrium. I regretted, and not for the first time, coming into town. Another bad old habit that was hard to break.
The door to the tavern flew open, letting in unwelcome light and a gust of fresh air equally unwanted.
Without thinking, my hand slid down, unseen beneath the wooden table, to where—for the longest time—I had borne my trusted blade, Quicksilver. I no longer carried a sword. I didn’t need one. I was no longer in the killing business. Live by the sword, die by the sword. Or so the bards claimed. I had left mine in the heart of the last man I murdered. How terribly I missed it sometimes. A finer sword had never been forged. The perfect balance. The razor’s edge that never dulled. The fuller that drank blood and souls in equal measure.
A girl, perhaps thirteen or fourteen winters of age, stood in the doorway. She was young and sweet, supple as a sapling, on the verge of becoming a woman, but not quite there. Her skin was the pale of snowy winter fields, her hair the color of those same fields in summer, ablaze. I smiled then, ever so faintly, for it occurred to me that years ago, I had set this shire on fire. Pillaging and burning. Another business that was no longer mine.
She had to duck to get inside. Gods were she tall. Tall as a man grown—and then some—despite her tender age. Perhaps she was a bit older than I had thought. Some girls reach womanhood without much in the way of curves. I looked her over again like I would a horse I wasn’t sure about, trying to make up my mind. I had misjudged her. She was woman enough all right. Just there was more quality than quantity to her if you catch my meaning. She might be sixteen, sweet seventeen perhaps, past marrying age around these parts.
She danced forward, on legs so long and slender. Her clogs and the old maid’s dress she wore didn’t do her justice. Someone should take her to the seamstress and have her made a real dress, one that enhanced rather than obscured. Jewels to sparkle with her eyes. And shoes. Legs like that should have heeled shoes, like those worn by the painted women of Southron courts or go barefoot. Not me, though. I no longer whored, no longer seduced. The old me had. The forgotten me. The warlock. The reaver. The heart-stealer.
“Did you hear?” she shouted eagerly, her robust soprano cutting through the muted bustle of the inn.
“Hear what?” the barkeep replied.
“The beast is dead,” she fluttered.
“Really?” I said out loud, much to my surprise.
“Yes,” she shrilled. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise.
“The hunters found it assaulting a fair maiden picking flowers in the meadow. That’s how they finally got it. Beauty killed the beast so to speak. The news is all over town.”
I fell silent for a spell. So did she, thankfully, or I might have strangled her.
“Tell you what,” I finally replied in a tone more mellow. “Proof, or it’s not true.”
“Is too,” she snapped at me. “The hunters came in from the forest with its head in a bag.”
“And what monster did they slay?”
“A tartar, a demon, with hooves for feet, the face of a beast, and antlers instead of hair.”
A tartaruchi, here? Could it be? It sounded like it might. What was the world coming to? Get rid of one monster—me—and another one rises to take its place.
“Show me,” I said and got to my feet. The room swayed. Already I regretted my rash words but could not make them unsaid. Not without killing all in the room, and I was no longer the cold-hearted slayer of yesteryear.
She looked at me. Didn’t like what she was seeing. It was written all over her face. I didn’t care; my eyes were on her chest, not her face. Soft breasts against calloused hands. Old memories, fond memories.
She was about to say no, but her eyes had caught sight of the gold coin still spinning on the table—and its twin, held in my left hand. My right thumb was hooked into the sword-less belt at my waist to stop my arm from reaching for the lass.
Behind my back, the innkeep swooped in to gather his prize. With a flick of my fingers and a touch of magic, I set the second coin spinning in the palm of my hand like I had the first. Round and round it went, golden surface lit by sunlight filtering through the door. Her eyes were riveted to it, as mine to her body. Like for like.
“I’ll show you,” she said, as if in a daze. I lifted my arm, the coin still spinning. She watched intently, trying to divine its purity, snatched it, turned around, and ducked outside. I loved watching her go. How long since last I saw a woman walk out on me? Too long by far.
I could have stayed back there all day, but she stopped to wait for me. Outside was too warm, too bright, a late summer’s day with altogether too much sun. There was a reason I had stayed indoors.
“Who are you, anyway?” the beauty said to me.
“I am Bacchus,” I told her. I had known a Bacchus back in the day. One of the few men who could best me at the drinking and seducing game. But a terrible swordsman. It was as good a name as any—I was not giving the little vixen my true name. “And you?”
“I am Antigone,” she replied.
“Quite the name for a country girl.” It was true. I had figured she was an ‘Anna’ or at best a ‘Hedwig.’
“My mother’s name is Jocasta,” she told me with great gravitas. “That’s a royal name; my father felt I should have a name of equal worth.”
I wanted to ask if her father was also her mother’s son but decided against it. That story was so old none of these country yokels would know it. Instead, I nodded her on.
“You look like a vagrant, but I don’t think you are.” Frank this one—and perceptive. “The trick you did with the coin…you some kind of sorcerer?”
“Spinning is a good trick,” I said, avoiding the question. Some kind of sorcerer indeed. The dark and terrible kind. In ages past, I had walked the shadowy paths of the Abyss, consorted with demons, and made pacts with the darkness. And now…how far the mighty had fallen.
“I’m serious,” she said. “We had a real magician at the midsummer fair. He could do all sorts of tricks.”
“I could show you.” I grinned at her. Too much? I didn’t care.
“Not using my coin, you ain’t,” was her reply. Not wholly innocent then.
“I have plenty of coins,” I told her. Why did I lead her on? The promise of young flesh compelled me. I had put such things behind me, hadn’t I?
“Not enough for my dowry, old man,” she laughed and danced before me down the street.
Funny girl. Tempt me, then hit me over the head with marriage. The old me would have cast a spell on her, had her mount me in the city square for all to see—or compelled her to join me on my horse, away from this hole, never to be seen again.
In the square were four hunters and a host of peasants and townsfolk. A chopped-off head, with antlers and everything, was on display. They all—hunters and townsfolk alike—seemed so pleased I didn’t have the heart to tell them. It was no demon, no tartar. Just some unfortunate shifter caught in the act, cut down, beheaded.
A stag shifter by the looks of him. Harmless really. Probably a local boy. If they did an inventory, I was sure they’d come up one young male short. More likely than not, a handsome, popular one. Morons, the lot of them.
The girl was watching me all the while. I caught her eye. She held my gaze for all of two seconds, then decided the cobbles beneath our feet were more interesting. I was amused. The girl had hidden qualities. A spine was one of them.
She stepped closer, took me by the elbow. For her to touch a man that disgusted her, scared her. I was even more impressed. “You don’t seem convinced,” she said in hushed tones.
She was very close now, pressed against me by the multitude of people. I could easily have kissed her sweet young honey lips. She would be powerless to stop me. The old me would have. And she would have begged for more. Alas, I didn’t play the domination game anymore, didn’t need her to submit. Fortunate for her.
“It’s no demon,” I spoke into her ear, breath heavy with liquor. She didn’t flinch; her father was a drunk then. “It’s a stag shifter. Probably one of your own. No more evil than you,” I almost added ‘and me,’ but caught myself. I had quit the lies when I put down the sword. “The ‘maiden’ he supposedly was attacking…I bet they were lovers.”
“A shifter?” The timbre of her voice spoke of honest confusion.
“A man—or woman—that can take the form of a specific animal,” I explained, as a schoolmaster would a somewhat dim-witted pupil. “Surely you’ve heard of shifters? They aren’t that rare.”
“Like a werewolf?” her eyes shone with elation.
“Exactly! Like a werewolf. But not a wolf in this case, but a proud and handsome stag.”
“What makes you an expert on monsters?” she said and pushed wayward strands of fiery hair from her face.
I had many answers to that question, but none that wouldn’t send her running. Her beauty was such that I didn’t want to scare her away. So tall and effortlessly poised, such a slender neck, such elegant shoulders. Her hair should be up, bound by ribbons, held by a net of diamonds and adamantine. A dress of black, ankle-length, laced up the back, shoulders left bare, should she wear.
“I’ll show you,” I told her and guided her away from the crowd.
“Show me?” she said, voice a little uncertain. She might have denied me, were it not for another golden coin spinning in my palm.
“Yes, show you. Show, not tell. That’s the key.”
Her face lit up again. “Like when they say a painting is worth a thousand words?” So eager to please.
That made me think about the paintings I had stolen, the ones I had burned, the ones I had myself commissioned. “Something like that,” I laughed.
I took her to a spot behind the blacksmith’s workshop. There was a hanging willow there, right next to the creek that turned the water wheel. It suited my purpose well enough.
Four more coins—twenty sovereigns—it cost me. Her dowry’s worth twofold. I cared not—money was no more precious to me than the dirt and rocks I transmuted it from. The gold-fever was on her skin, burning in her eyes. She could feel it, mingling with the fear of the unknown, of what I might do. Like always, the gold won out.
“Close your eyes,” I told her when we were hidden from view by the willow.
“I’m not giving up my virginity,” she warned. “Not for a hundred gold,” she added. “If you want me, you must ask my father.” But she did close her eyes.
“I could pay you a hundred, easily, and you’d give it up, all of it,” I told her as I stripped to bare skin. “But it’s not your maidenhead I’m after. It’s all of you,” I said.
She giggled, not understanding.
I dove into the creek.
She heard the splash. “What are you doing?” young Antigone shouted in surprise and opened her eyes.
“Showing you the nature of the beast,” I replied as I rose from the waters.
She looked at me then, mesmerized, seeing the true me, the old me, for the first time. The tallness of my body, toned muscles underneath perfect skin, hooves for feet, mighty horns, clawed fingers, tongue split, pointed teeth, devil-eyes, the works.
“Now, do you understand?” I asked.
“Please…” she begged. It didn’t sound like she meant it.
“Beauty does not kill the beast. The beast does what it wills with the beauty—and she lets him because deep down, that’s what she’s always wanted.”
“No…” she protested, but there was not a single tear, and her chest was heaving as if moved by great emotion.
I tore away her rags and threw her in the creek along with the clogs. I pulled her from the water, dressed her in black and the Southron shoes, painted her lips and eyes, gave her jewels that shone with her eyes, kissed her hair dry with the setting sun, and bound it with ribbons of the purest adamantine set with arrant diamonds.
Maybe it was the shoes that won her over, or perhaps it was the diamonds. By the time we got to the tongue, she was all mine: mind, heart, and soul.
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