The sun had just risen over the horizon as Veronica made her way outside to give the chickens their morning meal, while Belle went into town. The birds chirp and a gentle breeze blows across the hillside. Combined with the beautiful, cloudless blue sky, it makes for a picture-perfect morning.
And then Veronica heard a familiar snort.
Turning her head, she was surprised to see Philippe standing by the gate to his paddock. His sides were heaving and soaked with sweat. The whites of his eyes showed as he is shifted nervously on his feet.
"Philippe," Veronica said, rushing over and letting the big horse into his paddock so he could drink. She patted him gently. "What are you doing here? Where is...?" Her hand stilled. Then it began to shake as she saw the torn straps where the harness had once been attached. Her eyes grew even wider as she noticed the tattered reins. Something had happened to her father- something bad.
Not pausing to give her actions a thought, Veronica ran into the house, grabbed her cloak, grabbed her wand and put in the pocket of her cloak, and threw the cloak on causing her wand to fall out of it onto the floor and roll under a chair. She then ran back out the house, threw a saddle on to Philippe's back, tightened the girth, and put a new bridle over his head. She knew she was asking a lot of the horse, but he was only one who knew where her father was. Mounting, she kicked the horse forward.
Veronica knew that her father had gone into the woods. That much she was sure of; it was the route he always took. But as Philippe left the familiar countryside of the village and cantered through the thickening forest, her hopes grew dimmer. This part of forest was huge. Finding one among all of it seemed almost impossible. "Hurry, Philippe," she said as the horse veered around a tree that had been split in half. "Lead me to him."
The woods grew still thicker, the sky still darker, but Philippe plunged bravely ahead. Veronica scanned the ground and sides of the small path. Suddenly, she spotted her father's cart. It was on the ground, tipped on it's side. Her father's beautiful music boxes were strewn about, some broken beyond repair, others less damaged. But there was no sign of her father.
Nudging Philippe with her heels, she urged him on again. The horse cantered forward, seemingly familiar with thin and winding path. Veronica could only hope that was because it was the way he and her father had gone.
To her relief, a gate came into view a moment later. Beyond the thick iron bars, she saw giant stone castle. Philippe whinnied. Her father had to be in there, somewhere. Veronica just went. Quickly, she dismounted and patted Philippe. She whispered words of encouragement, leading him inside the gate, and then asked him to wait. She then moved to go up the stone steps, then paused. Veronica was not about to go running into the strange castle with no way to protect herself. She reached into her cloak pocket, going to grab her wand, but only feels the fabric of her cloak, causing her to go wide-eyed. She curses under her breath, looking around, she spotted a thick branch that had fallen to the ground. Picking it up, she held it over her head, brandishing like a club. Then she made her way up to the front doors./p
Veronica didn't even bother to knock. If her father was indeed inside somewhere, she want to waste any time in finding him, she had to get her father and herself back home before Belle began to worry. Pushing open the door, she found herself inside a massive foyer. A few candles hung on the walls, barely casting enough light to illuminate the space. Squaring her shoulders, Veronica took a deep breath and walked farther into the castle.
As Veronica made her way toward the grand staircase, her eyes adjusted to the dark. "Papa?"
Two voices rose and fell, and then Veronica heard one phrase uttered clear as day; "But what if she's the one? The one who will break the spell?"
"Who said that?" Veronica asked, whipping around and tightening her grip on the branch./p
"Who's there?" She spoke louder, looking around.
And then, from somewhere deep within the castle, Veronica heard the unmistakable sound of someone coughing. Papa. It didn't matter who was whispering. She just needed to find her father. Grabbing a candelabrum from a nearby table table, Veronica then began running up the long staircase, following it up to its very top. When she reached the end of the labyrinthine stairs, she found herself in a tower, which, she noticed with increasing dread, was used as a prison. A grated iron door stood opposite the stairs. The latticework was so thick it was impossible to see through it clearly, but she could make out the shape of someone sitting inside.
"Papa?" Veronica called out. "Is that you?"
"Veronica?" Maurice answered in a muffled voice. "How did you find me?"
Veronica ran across the dim tower and dropped to her knees in front of the door. A narrow opening allowed her just enough space to see her father. He was hunched over, his shoulders trembling. When their eyes met, she knew instantly he was not well. Setting the candelabrum down on the floor beside her, she reached through the opening. Her hand closed around her father's fingers. "Oh, Papa," she said, sadness tearing through her. "Your hands are ice. We have to get you home."
To her surprise, Maurice did not agree. "Veronica, you have to leave this place!" he said. When she ignored him and started to use the branch to hit the iron lock, he grew more and more agitated. "Stop! They'll hear you!"
Veronica paused, looking at her father. "Who's 'they'?" she asked, cocking her head. She thought about the phantom voices she'd heard earlier. "Who did this to you?!"
"No time to explain!" her father said. "You must go!"
Veronica shook her head stubbornly. "I won't leave you! I won't!"
Her father stifled a groan. He had always loved his daughters' tenacity and spirit, but for once he just wanted his eldest to do what he said. He couldn't stomach the idea of his sweet and kind girl meeting the creature who had put him in that cell. "Veronica, this castle is alive!" he said, trying to make her understand. "You must get away before he finds you!"
"'He'?" Veronica repeated.
Before Maurice could open his mouth to respond, a roar filled the tower. Veronica spun around, raising her branch high in the air and looking around. But it was no use. She couldn't see anything in the thick shadows. She could, however, hear a voice-a deep, rumbling voice that seemed to surround her, making her heart pound faster.
"Who are you?" the voice said. "How did you get in here?"
"I've come for my father," Veronica said, trying to sound braver than she felt. "Release him!"
"The voice sounded closer as it hissed the next words: "Your father is a thief."
Veronica recoiled as if she had been struck, fear turning into anger. How dare the voice accuse her father like that? "Liar!" she shouted. Her father was a loving and kind man. He was a gentle man. He would never do anything like-
"He stole a rose!" the voice roared.
As Veronica's head whipped back toward her father, her chestnut brown eyes locked with his hazel eyes. "Belle asked for the rose," she said in barely a whisper.
"Veronica..." Maurice said sadly, confirming what she knew to be true. Her father had taken the rose because it was the only thing Belle asked him to bring them.
"Punish me, not him," Veronica said, tearing her eyes away from her father and speaking to the invisible source of the voice, she would take her father's place and shield her sister from the voice.
"No!" Maurice shouted in anguish. "He means to keep me forever. Apparently, that's what happens when you pick a flower."
Veronica frowned. "A life sentence for a rose?" she said to the shadows, hoping her father might be wrong.
"I received eternal damnation for one," came the voice out of the dark. "I'm merely locking him away." There was a pause, as though whoever the voice belonged to was distracted, thinking of some distant memory. And then the voice came again, colder than ever. "Now... do you still wish to take your father's place?"
Veronica had had enough of talking to air. She wanted to see whom she was bargaining for her life. "Come into the light." she demanded.
Behind her, her father murmured, "No," and shuffled back in his cell. But the voice did not answer. Veronica reached down and grabbed the candelabrum that had been sitting by her father's cell. She lifted it. For one brief moment, the light blinded her. But when her eyes adjusted, Veronica gasped.
Standing in front of her was a huge creature unlike any Veronica had ever seen. Large horns rose out of his head, and his lower jaw jutted forward. His entire body was covered in golden-brown hair and thick muscles. It was hard for Veronica to tell just how big the creature's front paws were, clenched in fists as they were, but his back paws were large and clenched as they were, with sharp claws that flashed when the light hit them. The word beast flashed in her mind as she gazed at the creature. He was a thing of nightmares-the monster lurking in the fairy tales she and Belle had read as children.
But when Veronica lifted her eyes to the Beast's, she was surprised by how human they looked-and how full of pain they seemed. Blue as the morning sky, they stared back at her, haunted. She felt a strange pang of what was almost sympathy for the giant creature.
Veronica lowered the hood and moved her free arm, causing her cloak to open to reveal a dark green long sleeved shirt that was open from the neck to just below the chest that was loosely tied with dark green string at the chest, a black undershirt, brown pants, and dark brown leather boots.
The Beast looked her over. "What kind of woman wears pants?!" he snarled.
Veronica glares at him. "I do!"
"Choose!" The Beast's lips curled back over sharp fangs as he snarled his demand, shaking his head.
All feelings but those of dread, disgust, and anger vanished. Veronica looked back at her father, who pleaded with her not to do anything rash.
"But you'll die here," she said, knowing all too well it was true.
"I SAID CHOOSE!" the Beast snarled once again.
"No, Veronica," Maurice said, trying to reason with his headstrong daughter. "I couldn't save your mother, but I can save you. Now go! And protect your sister." But his words lost their power as a coughing fit overtook him. The coughs racked his already weakened body and broke Veronica's heart.
"Alright, Papa, I'll go," Veronica said trying to reassure Maurice and make him stop coughing. Then she turned to the Beast. "Open the door. I need a minute alone with him." She waited for the large creature to do something. He didn't. "Please?" Still he ignored her request. Veronica's anger flared more in her chest, hot and fierce. She clenched her teeth, trying to keep her magic in check. "Are you so coldhearted that you won't allow a daughter to kiss her father goodbye?! Forever can spare a minute!"
Veronica stood there where her fists clenched as she waited for the Beast to respond. For one long tense moment, he just stared at her with cold, cruel eyes and she wondered is she had gone too far. He took a step toward her, his massive paw reaching out. She watched him and braced herself for his retaliation.
She heard a clang. Looking around, she saw that the Beast had opened the cell door. He gestured for her to enter. "When this door closes," he warned as she passed, "it will not open again."
Veronica didn't hesitate. She ran inside and embraced her father. "I'm so sorry, Papa," she sobbed. "I should have been with you."
Maurice put his hands on Veronica's shoulders and gently pushed her back until they were eye to eye. "No, this was my fault," he said, shaking his head. He reached out and pinched her cheek the way he had done when she and her sister were little girls. It had always reassured them then. Now it just made her sad. He went on, his voice choked with emotion. "Listen, Veronica. Take care of your sister. Forget about me. Both of you. I've lived my life..."
"Forget you?!" Veronica exclaimed in disbelief. "How could we ever?! Everything we are is because of you!"
Veronica's words seemed to hit Maurice like a punch to the stomach. He looked at her as though seeing her for the first time-not as the smart and kind little girl he had raised on his own, but as the brave, strong, and spirited woman she had become. It all seemed too much for the older man. Tears flooded his eyes.
"Enough of this," the Beast said, his harsh voice stabbing into both father and daughter. "She must go."
Veronica and Maurice clung to each other.
"Now!" The Beast's voice tore them apart.
"I love you, Veronica, tell Belle that I love her," Maurice said. "Don't be afraid."
"I love you, Papa. I'm not afraid," Veronica said, leaning forward and gently kissing him on the cheek. As she did so, she maneuvered her body so her back was to the cell door, her hands on her father's shoulders. And then, in barely a whisper, she added, "I will escape and see you and Belle again. I promise..."
Before Maurice could stop her, Veronica pivoted her body. The force swung her father through the door just as the Beast slammed it shut. Falling to the ground, Maurice cried as the reality of what his eldest daughter just sacrificed became clear.
It seemed to hit the Beast at the same moment. And while it obviously devastated Maurice, the Beast appeared confused. "You took his place?" he asked Veronica. "Why?"
"He is my father,"Veronica said without hesitation. "He would have don the same for me."
"He's a fool," the Beast retorted. "And so are you." Without another word, he grabbed Maurice by the shirt and began to drag him away.
Veronica choked back a sob that threatened to escape her throat. She watched silently through the gate as her father and the beast disappeared down the stairs. She waited till she was sure she was alone, and only when silence had descended on the tower did she fall to her knees. As the the tears fell, colder and harsher than the snow that had once again begun to fall outside, one thought echoed in her mind: what was to become of her?/p