It was a dark and stormy night. That's just how these things worked. You couldn't go traipsing about mysterious castle courtyards and knocking on ancient worn doors in the middle of a sunny day. It just wouldn't have been right.
Therefore, it was a dark, moonless night, the skies were pouring down rain, and a hint of thunder off in the distance suggested that life was about to get even worse.
Herb was thrilled.
Perhaps a normal man under normal circumstances would have had a different opinion about the current state of affairs. Herb, however, was not a normal man; not precisely a man at all, if one wanted to be technical. His particular circumstances were such that Herb was, at the moment, about seven and a half feet tall and furry. Very furry.
Herb, you see, was a Beast. Not just any garden variety beast mind you, but an honest-to-goodness Enchanted Beast with all that such a thing entailed. Mostly. There were a few key points missing, which would be the reason that this particular beast was out and about in the middle of the night getting soaked to his skin, fur and all.
The weather, though, was a good omen to his mind. Maybe, just maybe, he'd get lucky this time. It was always supposed to be dark and dreary when Events occurred, therefore...
Drawing himself up to his full height and endeavoring to look as impressive as possible, Herb reached out and knocked three times upon the heavy oak door.
Someone was knocking on his door.
Beldon sighed softly and closed the book he'd been reading, after carefully marking his place with a large red velvet bookmark. The clock above the mantle read 4:15 or thereabouts, but it hadn't worked for at least three years, give or take, and he was fairly certain that the large grandfather clock in the foyer had chimed one not long ago.
Either way one looked at it, it was really a most peculiar time of night to receive visitors.
With a slight frown, Beldon placed his book on the side table and reluctantly arose from his nice cushy chair by his nice warm fire and went to go see who would be calling on him at-- he glanced at the grandfather clock as he passed-- one-seventeen in the morning.
The Great Hall was almost painfully opulent, legacy of greedy old rich men with less taste than money and less brains than both. Still, it was suitably impressive when the occasion arose that required such, so he left it alone. The air here was cooler than in the sitting room, though not at all drafty. That little problem had been taken care of when Beldon first arrived.
A light touch upon the handle was all that was needed for the great outer doors to swing silently open, leaving Beldon to face... a monster.
Easily seven and a half feet tall and built like a brick wall, the creature towered over him. It had all the usual features, lion's mane, boar's tusks, claws, tail... all quite intimidating under the proper circumstances. Beldon, however, was not the least bit impressed. Primarily because the thing was soaking wet and peering short-sightedly at him over delicate, half-moon spectacles.
"Yes?" he inquired calmly.
"Oh, um, pardon me ma'am," the Beast said nervously, fidgeting with his lapels, "I realize the hour is late but you see I was rather wondering if you would mind having a Beast terrorize your castle? You see, I really need a castle to lord over because of this spell that's been put on me and for some reason one wasn't provided to me when the spell was cast and... um..."
If it was possible for a giant, hulking monster to look contrite, the Beast managed it. "Well, you're also the only one who hasn't fainted just at the sight of me..." he mumbled sheepishly.
The patter of rain was the only sound between them for a long moment as Beldon let an eyebrow drift upward at the rather unusual request, then he shrugged fluidly and stepped out of the way, allowing the Beast into his castle. The doors closed themselves once the Beast was clear, leaving the two of them staring at one another in the middle of the Great Hall.
"You can have the North Wing," Beldon told the Beast offhandedly. "That's the usual area a Beast makes his lair in, if I remember right. Just hold still a moment, because you are not tracking water all over my rugs."
A soft word and a slight gesture was all that was needed to dry out the bedraggled Beast, though being dry didn't really do much to improve upon his appearance. He still managed to look incredibly pathetic for a creature that normally inspired terror in even the bravest of men.
This, Beldon decided, was going to prove rather interesting.
Herb was the happiest he'd been for... well... as long as he could remember. He had the run of the castle, provided he didn't damage anything and bathed regularly, and the incredibly annoying itch of the spell had finally settled down now that he was located inside a castle. Granted, it wasn't actually his castle, he was just borrowing it, but for the purposes of the spell it worked.
There were plenty of things to look at; the Enchantress seemed to be a collector of unusual objects, and every time he turned around there were new rooms to be explored. It had been rather confusing at first, having everything change itself randomly when least expected, but he'd soon discovered that all he had to do was decide he wanted to return to his suite and he'd find himself there in short order.
Even more impressive was the library, a wide open room with bookcases that rose several floors up and was dotted with the most comfortable chairs he'd ever had the pleasure of parking his posterior on. The only restriction the Enchantress had placed on him was the ultimatum not to damage any of her precious books Or Else.
Herb had absolutely no desire to find out what that Or Else might be. He might have been granted technical lordship over the castle, but they both knew exactly who was in charge.
It wasn't Herb.
Still, she surprised him rather soundly one morning four days after his initial arrival when he'd heard the dull thud of someone knocking on the castle doors and gone bounding down to investigate. His role as a Beast, of course, meant that he was supposed to immediately terrify anyone foolish enough to venture too near his castle. To that end, he positioned himself just right, tucked his glasses safely into a pocket of his jacket, flung open the heavy oaken doors and roared "WHAT?!" at the top of his lungs.
The scrawny beanpole of a man standing on the step stared at him with wide eyes for a long moment (during which Herb did his best impression of enraged panting and glowered rather convincingly if he said so himself) then turned on his heel and ran flat out for the village. Herb fell backwards onto the floor, howling with laughter.
So thrilled was he by his first successful act as Lord of the Castle that he didn't hear the Enchantress approach until she was nearly upon him. When he did finally notice her, or more appropriately the peculiar expression she wore, he sat up quickly and looked at his feet.
"Err.. I'm sorry..." Herb mumbled to the purple and gold blurs that he was fairly certain were the Enchantress's slippers, "Was that someone you wanted to see? I was just... I'm supposed to..."
That was when she surprised him entirely. By laughing. Rich, hearty laughter that was entirely unbefitting of a lady, yet seemed to fit her just fine. When at last her mirth subsided, she looked at him with her golden eyes twinkling.
"Well," she said with a secretive smile, "I can see that having you around may prove more useful than I thought."
That said, the lady turned around and disappeared into the East Hall.
Beldon managed to hold out for nine whole days before it finally got to him. It wasn't the Beast's fault, not really. How could he know better, after all? Still, there was a finite limit to Beldon's patience and his houseguest had passed that about twelve "M'lady's" ago.
Sometimes he wondered if he might not be better off just walking around naked.
They were in the Dining Hall eating breakfast when he finally snapped. Beldon had merely asked the Beast to pass along the cream and the creature decided to walk it to him, grinning like a vapid hyena, and say, "Here you are, M'lady."
Thunder cracked outside as the Enchanter's temper let itself be known. He rose to his full height (still falling woefully short of the Beast's) and glared up at his furry guest.
"Oh for the love of little carnivorous daisies!" he growled. "Are you really that dense? Don't answer that. Just.. just... Arrgh."
A flick of Beldon's finger sent the Beast's spectacles from the pocket they'd been riding in to the creature's face. He grabbed one of the monster's ears and pulled the Beast's head down so that they were more or less face to face and managed from between clenched teeth, "I. am. not. a. lady. Not a lady or a ma'am or a bloody shrieking girl! My name is Beldon and I am an Enchanter. Not an Enchantress, Enchanter. Male. Call me Lady one more time and I'll prove it to you."
The Beast's mud brown eyes blinked at him for several heartbeats, then his face scrunched up in utter confusion. "But..." he said plaintively, "The villagers said..."
Beldon released his hold on the Beast's ear and sat back down in his chair, glowering. "I know what they call me. I've been trying for years to correct them, but they all seem to have a mass hearing affliction. No matter how many times I tell them my name is Beldon, they still call me 'Enchantress Belle.'" He sighed.
"Now, would you mind passing me the brown sugar?"
To say Herb was startled would have been like calling the Great Giant of Thornklops 'larger than average.' In his experience, men didn't come in the 'beautiful' variety. That was a word reserved exclusively for girls, or so he'd thought. Beldon, it seemed, was a law unto himself.
The Enchantre- Enchanter's hair was long, straight, and dark. Green, Herb thought, though the lighting in the castle wasn't the best. He knew several court ladies who would have happily killed for hair like that, and Beldon hardly seemed to be aware of it. Nor did the problem end there. No, the la- man had high, fine cheekbones, perfect, fair skin, and eyes that couldn't seem to decide if they wanted to be gold or blue. Either way was just as bad.
And it certainly didn't help matters that the ornate enchanter's robes he always wore completely masked his figure. Though, given the elegant hands Herb had seen when Beldon was casting spells, he didn't really think even form-fitting clothing would help matters much.
"So, um..." Herb asked hesitantly, retaking his seat with the greatest of care, "Would that be why you live way out here in.. um..."
"In practically the middle of nowhere?" Beldon finished wryly, "Yes."
The Enchanter took a bite of his porridge and ate it slowly, some of the tension draining out of him in the process. He studied the bowl for a moment, prodding halfheartedly at a strawberry, then looked back up at Herb.
"I've done my time in the great cities, magician to kings and all that. I even had an invitation for a position in the High King's court. But..." The Enchanter frowned, stabbing frustratedly at his toast. "There are only so many times one can take being hit on before it starts to become really annoying. So I took myself out to the edge of civilization, removed an evil tyrant from power, and claimed his castle for my purposes. Now all I have to put up with is the occasional villager seeking this or that charm from the so-accommodating "Enchantress Belle" and even that has died off rather nicely now that you've snapped at a few of them."
Herb blinked, which was something he seemed to find himself doing a lot in the Enchanter's presence. In his eighteen years of life, he'd never met anyone quite like Beldon. He didn't think there was anyone quite like Beldon.
"But... don't you get lonely?" Herb asked, his ears drooping to match his mood. Having been raised in a castle with a full court, he really couldn't imagine anyone willingly choosing to cut themselves off from people.
"Not really," Beldon replied with a slight shrug. "I've gotten used to it. I have my books and enough magic mirrors that I can keep up with the majority of current events. I can do without the rest of society."
Privately Herb was of the opinion that nobody could live alone forever, but he kept that thought to himself out of pure self-preservation. Still, one thought did occur to him.
"Err, but if you disliked the villagers coming up to ask you for things, why didn't you ever just tell them to go away?" Herb asked curiously, and was rather startled when a faint blush spread across the Enchanter's cheeks.
"Yes, well, that wouldn't... I mean... Enchanters are supposed to work on the side of Good, after all. I could hardly turn them away once they'd asked..." Beldon murmured into his orange juice, refusing to meet Herb's eyes.
Herb stared at him for a long moment before he found himself laughing, even as the other part of his mind was shrieking in terror that laughing at Beldon was a very good way to get turned into something even worse than what he was now. He just couldn't help it. For all that Beldon tried so hard to be cold and intimidating, apparently he had a good side buried underneath all of that frost.
Beldon was glaring at him when Herb finally got his laughter under control, and that little part of his brain with the survival instinct informed him that he'd better apologize.
"Sorry," Herb said, unable to quite keep the smile off his muzzle, "But I guess I'm glad I could help you in some way, since you sure don't seem to need help for anything else."
The Enchanter actually looked surprised, then thoughtful. He cleared away what was left of breakfast with a wave of his hand and stood. "Well, fair is fair, I suppose," he said, gesturing for Herb to follow him, "So why don't we see what we can do about that curse of yours, hmm?"
Beldon led the Beast into the sitting room, murmuring a few words to reinforce the furniture before sitting down. While he had to admit that the Beast was as careful as was possible for a seven-plus-foot monster, he was also remarkably... clumsy. Therefore, precautions were in order.
"Sit," Beldon ordered, curling up in his own favorite red velvet chair. "Tell me how you came to be placed under the curse of the Beast."
The Beast poked at several chairs before finally settling himself uneasily upon a plush green divan. He looked rather comical, all fur and muscle upon the elegant seat, but he didn't really seem to notice.
"Um, well," he said after he'd gotten as comfortable as his awkward form would allow, "It happened four years ago. We were all at home, my brothers and me, me being the youngest, when this wizard shows up in town and starts harassing the people. All sorts of vile stuff. So then father, that is, King Hughbert of Irenia..." He looked up hopefully to see if Beldon had heard of it and continued at the Enchanter's nod.
"Father told us that one of us, us being the princes that is, would have to go out and defeat the wizard before something really bad happened. Richard decided he wanted to take the first shot, Richard being my oldest brother, Herbert Edmund Richard Bastian the First, and rode out to confront the fellow, getting himself turned into a willow tree in the process."
"So then Edmund went, Herbert Edmund Richard Bastian the Second, that is, and the evil wizard turned poor Edmund into a girl! The last time I saw him, he was still locked in his room..." The Beast spared a moment of worry for his second eldest brother, then took a deep breath and continued his narrative.
"That only left me, Herbert Edmund Richard Bastian the Third, to ride out and-"
"Wait, wait, wait," Beldon interrupted, sitting up slightly in his chair to regard the Beast in mild bewilderment. "Your father named all of you Herbert Edmund Richard Bastian?"
The Beast blinked. "No, Richard is Herbert Edmund Richard Bastian the First, Edmund is Herbert Edmund Richard Bastian the Second, and I'm-"
Beldon waved a hand at him in annoyance. "Yes, yes, the Third. But it doesn't strike you at all strange that aside from being First, Second, and Third, you all have exactly the same name?"
Mud brown eyes gazed at him in puzzlement. "... no?" he said at last. Beldon sighed.
"Never mind. Continue."
"Right. So, I went out to see the wizard and I asked him as politely as I could if he would please mind going somewhere else as the villagers didn't particularly care for his wizardry. I guess he took offense to that or something, because the next thing I knew I was really big and furry..." The Beast paused to look at one of his paws, carefully extending and then retracting his claws, before continuing.
"Anyway, the wizard told me that for my rudeness I was cursed to remain a Beast and lord over my enchanted castle until such time as the curse was broken and I was restored to my rightful shape. Except I guess something must have gone wrong, because I didn't have an enchanted castle. Father's castle is really more of a fortress than a castle, and it's not enchanted."
"So you went looking for an enchanted castle to lord over," Beldon finished for him, fingertips pressed together thoughtfully as he gazed at the monster before him.
Herb nodded. "I'd just about given up when I found your castle," he confessed. "I didn't realize enchanted castles were so hard to come by."
"Most Enchanters and Enchantresses take their magic with them when they leave, yes," Beldon agreed.
"And that wizard guy was pretty adamant that I'd never break the spell without one," Herb continued, "So..." He grinned sheepishly. "Here I am."
"Indeed," Beldon agreed quietly, "Here you are." He regarded the Beast for a long moment, eyes shifting from gold to blue and back again, before sitting up and snapping his fingers. A massive, leather-bound book appeared in the air, floating obediently into his lap as the Enchanter lowered his hand.
"What's that?" Herb asked curiously, partially rising from his seat to get a better look.
"The Big Book of Enchanted Men," Beldon replied absently, flipping through pages until he'd found the section on Beasts. He was vaguely aware of Herb crossing the room to look over his shoulder as he narrowed his search down to Beasts without castles, then to those who had since found a castle, finally leaving him with only two pages of entries.
"Hey, that's me!" Herb exclaimed excitedly, pointing at a small picture on one of the pages. "What's it say?"
Beldon read the short paragraph beside Herb's picture, then read it again, his lips pursing in a way that made it appear as though he'd just eaten something very unpleasant. The Enchanter looked over the page one more time before snapping the book shut and banishing it back to the library from whence it'd come.
Herb blinked. "What'd you do that for?" he asked, bewilderment thick in his voice. "Did it tell you how to break the curse?"
"No," Beldon replied, sitting up straight and staring at the fireplace, "It didn't. Apparently your wizard was a particularly bumbling one and not only messed up your enchanted castle, he messed up the spell itself. There is no cure for your curse."