A beast in the fire

Curdie wearily climbed the steep stairs, up to the highest room in the castle. He was looking for the Queen Irene, to ask her advice in a certain matter, assured that she would know what to do. Finally, he was getting closer! Suddenly, as he reached the last steps, he smelled the wonderful smell of roses. The old queen must have her rose fire burning! But why would she need it?

Curiosity roused, Curdie practically ran up the last few steps and opened the door without even knocking. He stopped suddenly on the threshold and looked in. There was the fire, red and white roses burning together, but the thing that stopped him was the fact that he was looking into the room where he himself had been burned by the rose fire. But that had been far away, and here was the same room before him!

There was the princess, or, rather, the queen, standing before the great fire, looking an old yet very strong woman. She held many roses, both red and white, and was dropping them one by one into the fire. As soon as they hit the flowers would burst into flame, giving off a fresh burst of fragrance.

There, behind the old queen, was Lina, that strange and hideous beast who had become such a wonderful friend to Curdie. The creature looked like she was ready to pounce into the fire at any moment. Her huge, thick tail wagged back and forth, dragging against the floor. Neither beast nor queen seemed to take any notice of Curdie, who was still standing in the doorway.

After a few moments Lina did look over at Curdie. She did not move, only stared intently into his eyes with her green ones, the yellow light in them blazing with something Curdie could not name. Anticipation? Excitement? Suddenly something in those eyes sent a shiver down Curdie's spine. It was as if he had, just for a moment, looked into the beast and seen something there inside Lina. It was as if he had been looking into a young woman's eyes. Then Lina's eyes seemed to smile at him and say Thank you, Curdie. With that she turned her gaze back towards the fire.

As soon as Lina looked away from Curdie the queen raised the last rose she held. It was a gorgeous red, so bright that it almost hurt Curdie's eyes to look at it. She looked at it, just for a moment, then let it fall from her hands, dropping towards the fire. With it there fell a single tear from the queen's eye. Queen Irene turned to the beast behind her even as the rose fell through the air.

"Now Lina!" she said suddenly, and Lina sprung, disappearing in the fire even as the rose and the tear hit it. A black smoke sprung up from the flowers along with a peculiar dust. Curdie squinted to see through it but could see nothing until it cleared. There lay all the roses, smoking a strange, pinkish and wonderful smelling smoke. Curdie almost expected to see a beautiful lady rise from the roses to stand by the old queen and then look at him with the same eyes Lina had just a few seconds ago. But there was no beautiful maiden, not even the hideous beast Curdie had called 'friend'; only the queen remained, looking intently at Curdie from the other side of the smoldering flowers.

"Come inside, Curdie," the queen said gently. Curdie did as he was told, not daring to disobey, but still staring at the roses, hoping, hoping...

"Shut the door." Again, he did as he was told. Then a sudden coldness seemed to grip his heart as a tear sprang to his eye. Could it be...

"Is she gone, my lady?" Curdie asked in a trembling voice, wanting nothing more than to hear the grand queen deny what he had asked. However, that would not come to pass.

"Yes, Curdie, she is." Two tears rolled down Curdie's young face as he gazed at the roses. Could it really be that she was gone?

"Do not weep for Lina, Curdie."

This command was so gentle that Curdie looked up at the queen, hoping to get some comfort from her face. When he looked up at her he saw no more the old lady who had thrown the roses onto the fire a moment before, though he knew she was indeed the same. Before him stood a young and beautiful woman, about 21 years of age by her looks, yet this change did not startle the young miner.

Struggling to hold back the flood of tears that threatened to spill out of his eyes he said softly:

"Lady, I would do anything you would ask of me, yet this command is one of the hardest you have given to me! Lina was one of my truest friends and bravest companions. You yourself shed a tear even as you dropped the last rose onto the fire into which she disappeared!"

"I wept for the pain I knew she would endure," the queen answered softly as she sat down. "But that pain is over, and we should not weep for our old friend, for she is happy now."

Curdie was silent for a moment, deep in thought, still struggling to hold back his tears.

"Do not weep for her," the queen said again. "And do not forget Curdie, this was your own wish."

"Lady!" Curdie cried, deeply hurt. "I have never once wished for her to be gone from me! At first, perhaps, I did not want her with me, but I did not wish her gone for I knew you sent her, and over time she became one of my greatest friends! How can you say I have wished her to be gone?"

"Did I say that, Curdie?" the queen asked, in a voice both gentle and reproving. "What did you tell Lina, that day long ago? You know what I am referring to."

Curdie bowed in shame, remembering in detail what he had said to Lina. "Yes, lady, I remember. I said Oh, Lina! If the princess could but burn you in her fire of roses!"

Queen Irene nodded her head without saying anything, but after a slight pause she remarked softly: "And now I have done just that, Curdie. Lina can be happy now."

"I think I will find it hard to be really happy without her," Curdie answered softly. After a pause he ventured to ask: "My lady, will you tell me of Lina's past?"

The queen looked at Curdie for a while, then nodded. "I have seen you wish to know it. Yes, Curdie, I will tell you."

"Take a seat," the queen said kindly, waving her hand towards a chair. Curdie moved to it and sat down, ready for the queen to begin.