A/N Ok, I did rip a little bit of this chapter off from Tolkien. If you're going to steal, steal from the best!

Chapter 2: In which Max looks for a Girl and finds a Button

The Beast, for beast the prince now was, stood seven feet tall, not including the twisted horns on the top of his head. Two ferocious tusks protruded on either side of his snout, and he was very, very hairy. The Beast looked down at himself, then threw back his head and emitted a blood curdling howl. He sprang across a nearby horse and bounded over the drawbridge, never noticing the pitiful donkey who huddled next to the gatepost.

It was a full week before the Beast returned to the castle. During that time, those who could flee, fled. The servants, as a side effect of the fairy's curse, found themselves invisible and unable to leave the castle. (On the bright side, being invisible did have its advantages, as the quickly diminishing treasury and pantry proved.) Max skulked around various corners of the castle until a switch wielded by an invisible hand drove him out to the stables. There he nosed his way into the oat bags, found a more or less comfortable pile of straw, and settled down to wait for the Beast's return.

He came bounding in one fine, moonlit night, shaking snow off his fur and growling for a fire. Apparently, he could smell the servants even if he could not see them, and a few well placed swipes of the paw went a long way toward restoring order. When Max at last managed to sneak into the castle, he found the Beast stretched in front of a roaring hearth, chewing on a large, bloody something.

Max heehawed to catch his attention and began, "Your highness, I'm delighted you've returned."

"What?" The Beast turned and peered at him curiously. "Hullo! I didn't know there were other talking animals about."

"Only me," Max replied glumly. "I was the wizard who was writing the book on the most noble aristocrats."

"Oh yes, I remember. The old sow got you too, eh? Bit of bad luck for you." He ripped a great hunk out of his dinner and looked at Max reflectively. "If I mounted your head on my wall, would you still be able to talk?"

"Absolutely not. But about this curse, your highness …" Max paused as the Beast resumed his noisy chewing, hoping that he was still listening. "It was bad luck, but there's nothing we can do about it but fulfill the fairy's conditions."

"Conditions?" the Beast mumbled with his mouth full.

"Yes," Max answered impatiently, "the conditions for breaking the spell."

The Beast swallowed, and a look of surprise crossed his shaggy features. "Break the spell? Why would I do that?"

Max brayed in shock. "To be human again!"

The Beast laughed, a great roaring rumble that rattled the candlesticks on the mantel. "I don't want to be human. I love being a Beast."

"I don't understand," Max stuttered.

The Beast bounded up, a horrible grin full of sharp teeth splitting his face. "Of course you can't, old fellow, not in that form. But it's the most wonderful thing! The silent speed I achieve is unbelievable! And then there are these." The Beast extended a paw and three inches of shining claw appeared. "More efficient than any hunting knife ever invented, I give you my word. That fairy did me a bigger favor than she dreamed." He chuckled again, deep in his cavernous chest.

Max neighed in soft dismay. Hunting! If the prince could hunt better as a beast than as a man, then it was only natural he would want to remain in his transformed state, and Max would be forced to stay with him. The wizard thought fast. "It must be wonderful," he offered in what he hoped was an envious tone. (He had trouble conveying subtleties with the donkey's vocal tract.)

"It is," the Beast sighed blissfully, once again throwing himself down before the fire.

Max trotted a little closer. "But, I still think you'd be better off as a human."

The Beast snorted. "Are you mad? This is a dream come true." He gnawed on a bone.

"For now," Max agreed. "But word of this will spread. Mighty hunters will come after you. Imagine the acclaim to be had by mounting your head on a wall."

The Beast clicked his claws together. "Let them come. I think they'll regret it. Have I told you that I can see better in the dark than I can in sunlight?"

Max persisted, "Even if you defeat the hunters, the next thing you know, your neighbors will be marching in. Even you can't fight a whole army. Once they've killed you, someone else will take over your land. Someone else will live in this beautiful castle. And someone else will enjoy the excellent hunting to be had in your forest."

The Beast was silent for a long while. "I hadn't thought of that," he at last admitted.

"Better a live prince than a dead beast," Max encouraged.

The Beast emitted a low growl. "You're right. I won't have anyone else hunting in these woods. What do we have to do?"

"It's really very simple. The fairy used a standard enchantment." Max trotted forward, then hesitated. "You don't find donkey appetizing, do you?"

"Donkey? Oh no, terrible stuff." The Beast scratched his stomach. "Now horse, horse is another matter." He licked his chops and grinned.

Max repressed a shudder and began to explain.

Nobody that anybody would miss, thought Max as he trotted down the alley. We don't want a search party after the girl before she's had a crack at the spell. The city represented his best chance of finding a stray maiden, and so here he was, trotting down garbage strewn alleys, keeping an eye out for likely prospects.

Dusk fell, and the narrow passageways grew dark. Max continually cast a nervous eye over his shoulder. I ought to be sitting on a pile of cushions, flirting with an overweight duchess right now, he thought miserably. Plague take that Prince and his infernal hunting. I'll be lucky if I get out of here alive. At that moment, a hard hand shot out of the darkness and grabbed hold of one of his ears. A rough rope was wrapped around his neck, and before Max could so much as hee, much less haw, he was dragged through a dark doorway, and the bolt slammed behind him.

A smoky fire lit a room full of shadows and gleaming things like tin cans and eyes and knives.

"He looks plump," rasped one of shadows. "I've never had roast donkey before."

"Who said anything about roasting?" protested another shadow. "He'll stretch farther if we put him in a stew."

"Don't be stupid," argued a third voice. "We've not got anything else to put in a stew."

As the cookery argument gained heat and volume, Max looked around for a way out. The door was to the side of the main group of ruffians, but even if he did succeed in reaching it, it looked like a stout one that would stand up to even his strong back hooves.

Max felt a hand patting along his side, pausing here and there to pinch. "Yes, a good fat donkey," came the whisper. "We'll not go to bed hungry."

"You wouldn't really want to eat me, would you?" Max whispered back. "I have it on the best authority that donkeys taste extremely nasty."

"Oh yes we would," the owner of the inquisitive hands replied. "We're hungry! Doesn't matter how it tastes."

His eyes had now adjusted to the firelight, and Max turned his head to get a look at his assessor. It was a girl, very dirty and skinny, but a girl nonetheless.

"Listen," hissed Max, "if you'll help me escape I'll take you to a place where you'll never go hungry again."

"Liar," replied the girl.

Max twitched an offended ear. "I most certainly am not."

The girl sniffed. "All donkeys are liars."

"Says who?" Max demanded.

The girl's eyes slid shiftily. "Oh, everybody."

"Everybody my foot … hoof. I bet you've never even met a talking donkey before."

"Well…" she hesitated.

"Listen, why do you suppose I can talk?" Max demanded.

Her brow wrinkled and she appeared to think very hard. "Magic?" she at last ventured.

"Yes, exactly." Max nodded his long face eagerly. "And magic can produce all sorts of wonderful things. Including food."

"Huh," the girl looked thoughtful. "Maybe."

"We're running out of time," Max hissed urgently. The argument by the fire seemed to be dying down. "If they cook me, that's the end of the magic."

"You promise?" she demanded.

"Yes, I promise, now let's go." Max took a step toward the door.

"Why should I? All donkeys are liars. Everybody says so," the girl whispered gleefully, and stuck something sharp into Max's haunch.

Fortunately, his bray of pain was drowned out by a burst of shouting: "No, no, if you boil him he'll turn into glue!"

Spurred on by this alarming remark, Max squinted his eyes, wiggled his left ear, then his right, and with a poof, a strawberry-rhubarb tart appeared between his hooves. A very small one, probably as sour as Old Scrooge, but a tart nonetheless. The girl sprang on it with a squeal, and stuffed the entire thing into her mouth.

"Now," Max snapped, "we're leaving!"

It was none too soon, for the group before the fire had just decided on shish kabobs, and were arguing about whose knife to use for the skinning.

Max and his rescuer crept across the room. The shadows were thick around the doorframe, but the bolt stuck. The girl threw her whole weight against it, and the slide at last gave way with a loud shriek.

"What was that?" demanded one of the hoarse voices.

"On my back!" cried Max, and winced as the girl clutched two fistfuls of mane and heaved herself up. Max tore down the alley, his hoofs clattering loudly on the cobblestones, as a stream of armed and starving ruffians raced after him.

"Are you certain she can do it?" the Beast demanded.

Max, exhausted by his all night run, lay on his back in front of the fire, all four feet stuck in the air. "She's a girl, isn't she? All you have to do is make her fall in love with you. In your situation, you can't be picky."

The Beast grunted and dug his claws into the plush carpet. "I just hope there's something left under all that dirt."

There was, even if it was only skin and bones. However, once they'd fed her some, Max conceded that the girl, whose unlikely name was Button, looked human. When she had eaten more, he even began to consider her attractive. And when she'd eaten yet more, she became a rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed, healthy-looking lass. She wasn't phased by the Beast either, although that wasn't surprising for a girl who had lived with a bunch of cutthroats. The problem was that her attraction to the Beast never went beyond simple acceptance. Her fascination with food, on the other hand, absolutely did.

Button loved to eat. It was probably the result of such a long time spent being hungry, but she was as passionate about eating as the Beast was about hunting. At any time of day or night, Button could be counted on to have a morsel of something in her hand. She soon made friends with the invisible cook and even began whipping up a few of her own recipes in the vast kitchens.

"All she talks about is food," complained the Beast, as he and Max lounged on their favorite hearth. "Soufflés and crèmes and filet mignon."

"You like to eat," pointed out Max.

"Yes, but I like it raw." The Beast ran his long red tongue over his sharp teeth. "Raw," he repeated dreamily.

Maw wiggled his long ears nervously. It seemed to him that the Beast was growing more beastlike every day. Button was not having the taming influence he had hoped. "Humor her," he begged. "It's just until the spell is broken. You don't even have to marry her if you don't want. Why don't you bring back something for her to cook?"

The Beast yawned and stretched. "If I must, I must," he growled, and stalked out of the room.

The next day, Max was gratified by an encounter with an excited Button. "He's going to bring me an entire deer!" she enthused. "I'm on my way to mix up the marinade."

Max watched her plump figure bounce down the hallway until it disappeared around a corner.

That evening the Beast walked into the library with a subdued air.

"Hunting poor?" Max inquired sympathetically. "Couldn't you get Button her deer?"

The Beast cleared his throat. "There's a slight problem."

Max's ears twitched forward. "What? I'm certain she'll be just as satisfied with something else. As long as it's edible."

"Oh, it was very edible," said the Beast, and licked his lips.

Max wrinkled his hairy brow. "Then what's the problem?"

The Beast's gaze slid from the donkey's. "I ate it," he said.

"You ate Button's deer?"

"No. I ate Button."

Max's long jaw dropped in horror. "No! Tell me you didn't!"

"I couldn't help it!" the Beast growled defensively. "There she was, so plump and tender, going on and on about all the ways to prepare venison. I really couldn't help myself."

"Do you want to be human again or don't you?" Max yelled.

"No," the Beast answered casually. "Not really." He turned and sauntered out of the room.

To Be Continued

A/N I hope you enjoyed the chapter! Review! And check out my original (co-authored) novel at: themagiletters dot blogspot dot com.