She did nothing to earn her beauty. It was given to her. And as with many such gifts, beauty was both a boon and a burden to the girl whose name was Imelda.
She was doted on by some, guarded by others, coveted by still others.
Imelda’s mother, who both loved and feared for her girl, spent many sleepless nights wondering when her child would grow old enough to be passed into the protection of another. For she and her husband were humble folk, as their child too would have been. But Imelda’s beauty—while it may not have impressed in a city or even a large town—was quite surpassing in their little village. Surpassing enough to catch the eye of those with greater means. The girl wished to be learned. She wished to explore.
Perhaps her beauty could make it so could do what she dreamed of doing.
Not many of means travelled to their little village. So Imelda’s mother would have to travel out. She knew this and yet, even as Imelda grew older, even as neighbors and relatives mentioned how worthy their sons were, Imelda’s mother put it off.
For there was one thing in that household that was far more surpassing than the girl’s beauty.
And that was her mother’s love for her.
Would that I could hide you, her mother would think as she gazed at the stars in the night sky. Would that all people in this world understood the wonder of beauty.
But people did not understand.
Flowers showed their beauty and were plucked.
Birds showed their beauty and were caged.
If Imelda showed her beauty…
So the girl remained with her mother and father, whose protection, alas, grew weaker as Imelda grew older.
Thus it was that Imelda reached her seventeenth year, passing through rage and rebellion, obedience and surrender, pride and humility, until she came at last to hope.
“Mother, look,” Imelda said one day, holding open a book under her mother’s nose as she went about sweeping. Imelda grasped the broom with a grip that was far firmer than might be expected for someone so small, and pulled it away. “If I sweep, will you look?”
Her mother relented, grateful to be off her feet while her daughter regaled her with the tale that was written, rendering unnecessary any need for her to read the book herself.
There was a castle, right there in their land. Indeed, it was close by their village. In that castle lived a prince, who insulted a sorceress one day, and was promptly cursed and transformed into a beast.
“This is the fifth—the fifth, Mother—the fifth book I’ve found with the same account. I think there’s some truth here.”
“Except there’s no such thing as magic, love,” her mother said, with a gentle sigh of exasperation.
Imelda grinned at her mother. “All things are possible to those who have the knowledge to make them possible.”
She held up the broom. “No such thing as sweeping existed until the broom was invented.”
Imelda’s mother pointed to the palm of her own hand and made a sweeping motion.
“I can go and find out for myself.”
“You mustn’t leave the village, love.”
“It’s not far.”
“There are dangers.”
“You don’t know.” Imelda’s mother rose and cast a stern gaze toward her daughter. “And I would that you never know.”
“Let me go,” Imelda said. “If I find nothing, no way to be free and live as I need, then I will marry that blacksmith’s son who came the other night.”
Imelda’s mother reeled back from her daughter. “How did you…?”
“He seems kind, at least.” Imelda sighed. “Though seeming is not being. But I hope in this case, he is as kind as he seems. But just in case…” Imelda placed her palm on her chest. She closed her hand and offered her fist to her mother. “You keep my heart. I won’t need it when I’m wed.”
Her mother batted her fist away. “Don’t be foolish.”
“Do you have no other dream for me, mother, than to be wed to someone who might be kind?”
“Dreams are not for ordinary folk like us, love. Even ordinary folk with extraordinary faces.” She put a hand to her daughter’s cheek. “Unless you bind yourself to someone of extraordinary means.”
“Then let me go search for this prince. If I find him, and if I can find some way to break the curse upon him, then he will be grateful, grateful enough to thank me with the plentiful riches from his royal coffers. But if there is no prince, or if I can’t help him, or if anything else goes wrong…”
“Then you’ll run off, and I’ll never see you again.” Imelda’s mother sniffed and held hand to her nose.
“Is that what you fear?” Imelda wrapped an arm over her mother’s shoulder. “You do realize that the blacksmith’s son lives in another town, a far town, and that if I marry him, I will move to that town, away from you.”
Imelda pulled away. “Then why not let me go on this last quest? I’ll take father with me if it eases your heart.”
Her mother sighed.
“I’ll succeed, mother. I will.” Imelda swept the book up from the table and held it aloft. “Knowledge is the key. And I already know where to start. I’ll break the prince’s curse. He’ll reward me handsomely. I’ll be rich, and rich, and rich. Then I can marry who I want, or perhaps I’ll simply amass a collection lovers.”
Imelda had gone too far. She found herself in danger of being swept away by her mother’s broom.
But three days hence, she was waving her farewells to her weeping mother.
Imelda’s father sometimes traveled outside of the village to trade in weaves and fabrics. As it so happened, the path that Imelda sought to travel was on its way to a town her father had been meaning to visit, for it had “promising prospects.”
Imelda, who had never traveled outside of her village, attempted to remain calm and even-tempered, even seemingly unmoved, so as to prove to her father—and later her mother, to whom he would report—that she was serious. It was no whimsy that brought her to the edge of a thick forest overgrown with wild tangles.
“A castle, you say?” Her father was doubtful of the accounts that Imelda had read. But he allowed the slight detour, so they could explore, just until he grew hungry enough to return to the wagon and have some lunch.
Imelda told her father the story as they made their way through the brush, trying to find the path to the castle.
“The accounts say that the prince was abandoned by his mother and father, and all others in the castle, after the curse fell.”
“That’s terrible. Why didn’t they try to help him? Watch that branch.”
“They did, but to no avail. Thank you, father.” Imelda ducked under the branch in question. “The prince would not cooperate with any of the spell-casters that the king and queen brought to the castle to help him. In the end, they realized that there were only two ways for the curse to break. One was to fulfill the curse’s conditions. The prince had to find love, and his love would break the curse. The king and queen tried, of course, to bring many fair royal persons to court, and nobles and commoners too. It was the first thing they tried. But they failed. The only other way for such a powerful curse to be broken was to find the one who cast it, and convince her to undo what she had done.”
“Why could they not find her, daughter?”
Imelda pointed out a depression so her father could avoid twisting his ankle within it. “She was a powerful sorceress. And she did not want to be found.”
“Then what makes you think you can find her? What knowledge could be greater than the powers of a king and queen?”
Imelda smiled. “You and mother need not humble me so often. I can bear to do that myself now.”
Imelda’s father would not learn what she thought of her ability to maintain her own humility, for they had just come upon a path. The stone was crumbling, and the bricks were askew, but it was most definitely a path. As they followed it, they found the path in better condition, and marveled at how it had been obscured by the woods. They came to a gate, and beyond it, they could see the shape of a grand castle under a thick layer of vine.
“Perhaps we should turn back,” Imelda’s father said. “That prince in your stories didn’t sound like a friendly fellow. And something is odd about this place.” He placed a hand on his daughter’s arm to draw her attention. “I have lived in that village since I was boy, Imelda. I have no memory of there ever being a castle here, or a king and queen. The only king and queen I’ve ever known are the ones who rule in the east. This is most strange.”
“It’s enchantment. It could be some spell of forgetfulness. Or maybe you’re right. Maybe this tale began long before you were born, father. And all this time, it has languished in this wood.”
“Then let it languish still, and let us be off to have some lunch.”
Imelda grabbed her father by the crook of his elbow. “But don’t you see? If you’re right, if this tale is an old one, there may be no prince. He may be long dead. Or if he is still alive, he may be old, too old to care about us taking his treasure.”
“You want to steal an old man’s treasure? Have I not taught you better?”
“No, if there is a prince—whatever his age, I will make my offer. I do have an idea of where we might search for this sorceress.” Imelda grinned and her eyes gleamed in a shaft of glowing sunlight. “But if there is no prince, and if none else have ever come around this castle, then what we find, what we salvage, would be ours.”
Her father raised his brows and glanced at the castle. “That is true.”
Imelda and her father approached the front door of the castle with caution, glancing around, watching their step lest they trigger any traps, smelling the air for vaporous poisons. And listening, listening for the sound of habitation.
There was no rust upon the metals, no warping of the woods, and no crumbling of the polished stones that made the stairs, the door, and the front hall of the castle.
Within was darkness, but they had brought a lantern, and they lit it before walking further in.
“More a palace than a castle, I’d say,” Imelda’s father whispered, to avoid the echoes that bounced off the stone walls and sounded too loud in the otherwise silent castle. “Though I’ve never set foot in either.”
Imelda had thought she would stand in the front hall and announce herself and her father. But the notion of speaking above a whisper seemed…unnerving.
“Let us keep together, father. And let us explore. And let us keep listening.”
They had left the doors to the castle open, and glanced back to assure that they would stay that way before proceeding deeper into the castle.
The dark stone walls were adorned with thick tapestries in dull dark colors that depicted battles and journeys. Imelda and her father kept to the main hallway, clutching each other, and taking turns holding the lantern aloft.
Imelda caught the signs of movement first. A flicker passed the shadows cast by lantern light. But still there was no sound.
She leaned close to her father’s ear and warned him that there was someone—or something—moving about around them.
They turned around, and began walking back toward the main hall.
Without a sound, a dark shape swept out from the shadows and knocked the lantern from Imelda’s hand. The flame extinguished, casting the hallway in utter darkness.
Imelda heard a low rumble, and then her father cried out.
“Run, child! Run!”
Even in the midst of his terror, her father had avoided speaking her name. She had warned him against giving his name to the sorceress, once they found her, or to anyone schooled in sorcery. He must have remembered in that moment.
She still could hear nothing else but her father struggling. And by that struggle, she heard him being born away from her. She tried to follow, breathless and terrified though she was.
She reached out a hand to find the wall of the hallway. She gulped, uncertain if she was facing toward the front of the castle, or back toward its darker depths.
Her heart hammered as she took a step. She stopped. She was afraid to stay. She was afraid to go on.
Something had taken her father.
And it was her fault. For she had brought him. She had used him to convince her mother.
What will I tell mother?
Imelda’s muscles trembled so badly that she stumbled as she took a step. She leaned against the wall and took another step. She calmed her frantic breathing.
She had only taken a few more steps before a voice spoke in the darkness.
“Tell me, thief.”
Imelda froze and gulped. The voice spoke again.
“Should I let you go?”
Imelda shook her head as if trying to shake her scattered and spinning thoughts into line. She knew she should ask about her father. She knew she should ask about the speaker. She was at his mercy. She had not heard him approach. She spoke the words that she hoped would please him, or at least appease him.
“Your Royal Highness.” Her voice trembled. The words fell from her lips, shrinking until they faded.
She had pictured herself standing before the beastly prince in the receiving hall, humbly but firmly declaring that she would help him break his curse.
When no answer came out of the darkness, Imelda braced herself against the wall and drew in a steadier breath.
“Why have you come here?”
“I…I came to earn, not to take.” And so that her words would not be a lie, she added. “If I could.”
“Is…is my, my father….?”
“He is my prisoner.”
Imelda nearly collapsed to her knees. Not from terror this time, but relief. Her father was still alive.
The knowledge gave her courage. Gave her strength.
She steadied herself against the wall.
“Your Highness…I know of your curse—and of how to break it. I came to offer you my service. The service of finding the sorceress who cursed you.”
Imelda heard a low rumble that made her bones tremble.
“How? Are you also a sorceress?”
“No,” she said. “I’m…I’ve read—I’ve studied, many texts.”
There was silence for a while. Imelda felt a tickle on her cheek and brushed at it, thinking it was an insect. But it was a tear. She had not realized she’d been weeping.
The voice spoke at last.
“Your offer is foolish. You will never find her.”
“Then I can find you love. That too would break your curse.”
“You think you can do what the king and queen could not do?”
Though Imelda had neither heard nor sensed movement, the direction of the voice had shifted. It had been farther and to her left. It was closer now, and right before her.
“It was not the king and queen who failed,” she said, “but those to whom they turned.”
“What do you want, in return for your service?”
Imelda had been too foolish to know that all her dreams had vanished the moment she set foot on the castle grounds. But she knew now. Whether the voice that spoke to her would let her go, much less give her payment for any service she rendered, she did not know. But she could ask for only one thing now.
“I request that you release your prisoner, Highness.”
Imelda heard the voice exhale in what seemed a sigh.
“He is your father?”
Imelda hesitated, then deemed it wiser to tell the truth than to lie. “Yes.”
“Where is your mother?”
“She is at home. She is waiting for us.”
“And would you take your father’s place, as my prisoner, if you could?”
Imelda felt her heart sink into her stomach. She grew numb with dread and yet, the word she spoke in answer was the loudest she had spoken in the dark hall thus far.
The voice was silent again for a few moments. Imelda took the time to steady her breath and wipe her cheeks. She steadied her thoughts as well and composed her next words, if the voice remained silent.
But the voice spoke again.
“Whoever abides within these walls is forgotten by those who abide without. Your mother is not waiting for you. Nor will she and your father come to rescue you once he leaves the castle.”
Imelda’s thoughts spun. Some memory of the castle and the prince had survived outside the castle walls, or else she would not have found her way there. But there might have been—must have been some truth to his words. Or else there would be rumors and stories of the castle, children daring each other to go find it, and to go inside and face the beast that lived within.
“Would you still take your father’s place?” the voice asked.
Imelda swallowed and answered. “Yes.”
Again the voice was silent for a few moments. Then he spoke.
“In a moment, I will light a lantern, and you will see me. Follow if you dare.”
Imelda braced herself even as a spark of light bloomed into a glow brighter than her own lantern had been. The hallway appeared again, the stone walls, the tapestries.
A figure stood before her. She saw him clearly.
Though his posture was slightly hunched, he still loomed at nine feet tall. At first glance he appeared like a large gray wolf standing on hind legs. But the shapes of his limbs were longer than a wolf’s, and his limbs ended not in paws, but in large hands and feet that were covered in fur. His face was like a wolf’s too, save that his snout was shorter somewhat. His most striking feature was his eyes.
They glowed in hues of red and gold.
Now that Imelda could see him, where he was, and how he looked, the crippling fear of the unknown faded. But the fear of facing a stranger and a wild and dangerous animal remained.
The wolf-prince turned away from her and started down the hallway, stalking forward on his slightly bent legs.
Imelda followed. She had been facing the wrong direction all along. Had she continued on in darkness, she would have gone deeper into the castle.
They walked in silence for a few moments. Imelda wanted to ask where he was leading her. She hoped he was leading her to her father. But she also feared that if he was, then he was also leading her to a dungeon, where she would soon be spending as many days as she could bear until she succumbed to illness, or despair.
But they soon came upon a stair, a plain stair, but one leading up. They began to climb, and as they did, Imelda noted that it grew brighter. Small windows were set within the walls—for archers, she imagined—and they let in the midday light.
The stair led up to a landing, which they climbed past. On the next landing, the wolf-prince turned and led Imelda down another hall, this one awash in sunlight. Bright portraits adorned the walls, of triumphant parades, of people carousing in the snow, of children and maidens in gardens. Imelda frowned at herself for allowing the portraits to distract her from watching the wolf-prince. He seemed even bigger than he had in the dark hallway. Perhaps it was because the ceiling of the hall they now walked was so much shorter. Between the portraits were plain wooden doors, unmarked, but all closed.
Imelda heard her father before she saw him.
He was behind one of those doors. She heard him dragging something.
The wolf-prince turned the knob of the door. Imelda did not see how he had unlocked it. He pushed open the door and there in the middle of the room, grasping a chair, was Imelda’s father.
She rushed past the wolf-prince to her father and embraced him.
They asked each other if they had been harmed. They both wept.
And again they embraced, Imelda’s father placing his hands upon her head as he had done when she was a child.
“The weaver is free to go,” the wolf-prince said.
Imelda and her father turned to him.
“I agreed to take your place,” Imelda said.
Imelda’s father broke away from her and fell to his knees. He begged the wolf-prince to let his daughter go and keep him as a prisoner instead.
“I have no use for you,” the wolf-prince said. He looked at her Imelda with his red-gold eyes. “But the scholar must stay. She has offered to break my curse. And she must stay until she completes her task.”
Imelda’s father entreated the wolf-prince, even claiming that his daughter was a fraud and a foolish girl dreaming of riches from a grateful monarch. She knew nothing of how to help the prince, he said, betraying too much in his fear for his child.
Imelda pulled her father to his feet and took him aside. The thought of him standing safely outside the castle walls gave her great comfort, not enough to relieve all her fear, but enough to give her some courage.
She knew when she spoke that she spoke a lie. She told him that if he left, he could gather allies and return to the castle to rescue her. And in the meantime, she would appease the wolf-prince by seeking to break his curse, just as she had promised. Perhaps she would even succeed and he would let her go.
But her father would not leave her.
“Scholar, is our bargain sealed?” the wolf-prince said.
“Yes,” Imelda answered.
Suddenly, the wolf-prince dropped to all four limbs. He swept into the room without a sound, and he rose again and clamped an arm around Imelda’s father.
The wolf-prince swept out of the room, closing the door behind him. Imelda ran to the door and tried to open it, but it was locked. She called to her father and banged on the door. She ran to the window. It was facing to one side of the castle. But she leaned out as far as she could. She could see the castle grounds and the gate, and the path that she and her father had walked.
It was not long before she saw a man walking down the path. Her father.
She did not weep to see him walk to the gate without a glance backward. Nor when he passed through the gate and beyond her sight.
He was safe now. She need not weep for her father.
She had only a few moments to herself before the wolf-prince returned.
“Come with me,” he said.
And again she followed. A strange thing happened then, for Imelda, having resigned herself to her fate, felt her dread fall away. She was no longer anxious of what might happen next.
Her muscles no longer trembled. Now they were taut, as if ready to flee at any moment.
She watched the wolf-prince walk, with soundless grace. She tried to make as little sound as she could, but could not manage it. Not even for a single step. She could always hear something. Some shift of her skirt. Some click of a button. Some tap of her shoe.
But the wolf-prince made no sound. He had been following Imelda and her father the whole time they were in that dark hallway. It was only by chance that Imelda had caught sight of him crossing a shadow.
She dared to speak.
“You could have torn us limb from limb. Was it curiosity that halted you?”
Imelda heard a low rumble.
“Do you want me to say it was your beauty that halted me?”
Imelda was taken aback, and a surge of fear filled her heart again.
“I am grateful that you allowed us to speak to you,” she said, attempting to shift his attention. “You…could see us in the darkness, couldn’t you? It’s a marvel. I could see nothing.”
“Do not mock me, scholar. This body is not mine. I am a man.”
Imelda stopped. “Forgive me.”
The wolf-prince stopped as well. He growled and then shook his head. He turned toward her.
“I have never harmed another. Not in this form. And not in my true form.”
He turned away again and led her downstairs. On the floor below what was to be her chambers, he directed her to a room full of books, scrolls, tablets, and trinkets, and all of it caked in layers of dust and cobwebs.
“You will not seek the sorceress,” he said. “I do not wish to ever meet her again. All the knowledge in this room is at your disposal. Find another way.”
Imelda had no time to marvel at a room full of the most books she had ever lain eyes on at once. As he swept past her, she followed him. “But the sorceress is the best way—“
“You will not seek the sorceress.”
“Are you able to leave the castle?”
“Then once I find her, you can go to her. There are new ways now to find spell-casters. I’m certain—“
“Do you know why she cast this curse upon me?”
Imelda fell silent, not wanting to give the wrong answer, not wanting to anger him.
But his shoulders heaved in heavy breaths and she feared that it was her silence that angered him.
“They say I insulted her. Is that so?”
Imelda nodded. “Yes.”
“I was some few years older than you appear to be now. I was a prince. I had no reason to fear anyone, did I? Least of all in my own castle. But she was a very powerful sorceress, and an honored guest of my family. I refused her advances. She cursed me with a beastly form.”
Imelda ducked her head. “Your Highness, there is no tale I found that speaks of this.”
“Find another way to break my curse, and I will let you go. You have my word on my honor, if that should mean anything to you. Once you leave the walls of this castle…all who know you will remember you. That is the only reward I will give you.”
And so Imelda studied, and she labored with potions and spells. For many months, she stayed in the castle, and though she missed many people, her mother and father most of all, she did not lose hope that she would one day leave the castle. The wolf-prince let her be, and he let her wander where she would within the castle walls. The castle was vast, and even after a year, she had not finished exploring it. They spoke at times of things other than curses and spells. But most of the times that Imelda and the wolf-prince were together, it was when Imelda had another spell to try.
None of the sorcery that Imelda tried worked. But with each spell, she believed she was coming closer to the one that would work.
One night, Imelda asked the wolf-prince to join her at dinner.
For she had finally come across a way that would work. A way that was so simple that she could have done it in her first month in the castle, save that, perhaps, she would not have been quite ready to cast it.
“I had thought, Your Highness,” Imelda said, “that I came seeking you so that I could gain riches and live a free and comfortable life, as I deemed you must have before this curse befell. But I think now that it was something else I sought from you. Something I dared not admit, even to myself.”
The wolf-prince narrowed his red-gold eyes at her, but made no comment.
“I cannot break your curse, Your Highness. I’m convinced that no one can, not even the unworthy one who cast it.” Imelda leaned over her plate. “But I can free you of the curse.”
“I’m sufficiently intrigued, scholar. There’s no need to speak in riddles.”
“I’m not speaking in riddles. I can free you of the curse by shifting it, moving it from you to someone else. Someone who is willing, of course. More than willing.” She placed her palm upon her heart.
The wolf-prince rose from his chair. “I can see that you are not jesting, scholar. But you don’t know what a burden this form is—“
“A burden, Your Highness? To be quick and quiet? Strong and fierce?” Imelda too rose from her chair. “To not be helpless in the dark?”
“You’ve learned much sorcery in your time within my castle. I do not think you will ever be helpless in the dark again.”
“What is a burden to you will be a boon to me,” Imelda said.
“You cannot know that. If we were to try this, would you be able to reverse it?”
Imelda tipped her head. “Don’t worry, Your Highness. I give you my word that I will not reverse it.”
“I did not speak out of fear for myself,” the wolf-prince said.
The wolf-prince turned his head away from her. “No one has ever done such a thing for me in my life.”
“My name is Imelda. You will not need to speak it, but you will need to know it for the spell. I know your name, of course,” Imelda said, holding up a hand as the wolf-prince began to speak, “having wandered through your castle for a year.”
“Imelda, if you leave these castle walls as a beast…I don’t know if your dear ones will remember you. And even if they do…”
“We shall see.”
Imelda instructed the wolf-prince of the words he must say to pass his curse onto her.
And she spoke the words to accept the curse, which in her possession, would be a gift, to become a beast.
With their dinner still warm on the table, the two began to transform.
They collapsed to the ground from disorientation and pain.
But it was far less pain than either had expected. In mere moments, the spell was completed.
The prince was a man again. He laughed and rubbed his hands across his furless forearm.
Imelda was a beast now. She rose up on her hind legs with a howl that shook the dinner plates and reverberated off the stone walls.
Her dress had fallen away. She needed it no longer. As the prince’s fur had been gray, hers was black.
“You did it, scholar. You broke my curse.”
“Do you know, Your Highness,” Imelda said, savoring the deep rich rumble of her voice, “that I broke the locks that kept me in the castle long ago?”
“I…suspected. I thought perhaps you stayed because you’d grown fond of me.”
“Fond? Of my jailor?”
“A foolish thought. A wishful one perhaps. But I’m your jailor no longer. You have fulfilled our bargain. You are a free woman, or beast, or…what are you then?”
Imelda dropped to all four limbs. “I am what I never dreamed I could be.”
“And what is that, scholar?”
“I am myself.”
With that, Imelda took a bounding leap away from the table. She stretched her limbs and swept soundlessly through the halls, crashing through the front door. It was winter and there was snow on the ground. Her paws fell lightly on the snow as she climbed the nearest hill she found.
She raised her head to the stars above, and she howled.
Copyright © 2021 Nila L. Patel