With every passing minute Belle felt more and more guilty about her decision to leave the tavern. She knew she was taking a big chance after all. She was leaving her Papa behind, and what would Adam say when he found out she had run away after he had promised M. Bouquin he would lead her to safety?
But at the same time, the urgency of her dream pulled her forward. If it was the memory of that girl that had compelled Adam to rescue her from Gaston, then it was the memory of the Beast that was compelling her to ride back to his castle in the dead of night, answering his call...if that indeed was what the dream was telling her to do. Already the details were starting to become fuzzy to her. Somehow, she knew that the Beast wanted her to come back to him, except in her dream he wasn't a Beast, he was a human, a young man with long, titian hair and deep blue eyes.
"Why didn't he tell me?" she wondered to herself. In all those quiet moments she'd spent with the Beast, he had never told her anything about his past. The closest he may have may have come to it, she realized, was that night when she had first set foot in the West Wing. She remembered how she had walked in a daze across the broken room, thinking she was in the ruins of what must have been a beautiful bedchamber once. She remembered seeing the remains of a canopy bed covered in furs, a shredded portrait of a boy with startling blue eyes, and an enchanted rose encased in a glass bell jar before he had found her and frightened her off.
"Do you realize what you could have done?" he had shouted. "Get out! GET OUT!"
What had really happened to him, and why? Did that rose have anything to do with it? All Belle knew was that she had to find the answer, needed to understand this before they went any further. It was the only solution, the only way to stop these dreams that plagued her every night…
Suddenly, Belle was startled from her thoughts as she sensed movement in the trees beside her. A chill ran down her spine. The woods were dangerous to be riding in alone at this time of night, she realized. She thought of the predators her father had warned her about when she was younger – wolves, bears, ruffians – and knew she had no way of defending herself should anything come out to attack her. She urged Philippe to go faster, but already the noises were getting louder. Somebody knew she was here, and they were following her.
Suddenly, a black stallion emerged on the path in front of her. On it were a short man and a tall muscular one in a red shirt: LeFou and Gaston. Her heart practically stopped as she pulled Philippe to a halt. They had found her.
"Well, hello there, Belle," Gaston said, grinning at her haughtily. "I always knew you'd come running back into my arms eventually."
"Gaston," Belle replied in disbelief. "But - how?"
"A good husband always knows how to keep a sharp lookout for his wife," he explained proudly. "I left no clearing unexplored, no stone unturned; I even rode around Bridoré for a few hours in case you just happened to come riding by."
"Actually Gaston, sticking around the village was my idea," LeFou interrupted.
"Shut up!" Gaston snapped as he punched the top of his lackey's head. He then turned back to Belle and smiled. "Now, let's get you back home."
Home. Hearing this word, Belle quickly came back to her senses. "No," she said firmly.
"No?" Gaston repeated, as though he had never heard the word before.
"I'm not going back."
"Belle, in case you've forgotten now, you agreed to marry me. You gave me your word."
"You killed the Beast, and you would have done the same to my father if I didn't consent," she retorted. "Do you think I'd actually want to marry you after that? Do you think anyone would? You might think what you've done is right, but I know the truth; you're nothing more than a monster. And I will never ever forgive you for what you've done!"
Gaston's dark brows drew together in rage. How dare his wife speak to him that way, after all the work he'd done just to find her and rescue her! She should be grateful to him, practically leaping into his arms after all the trouble he'd gone through for her. Instead, she was more stubborn and unappreciative than ever! "It's clear to me that your time in the forest has made you forget your place, Belle," he said. "The point is that you belong to me now, whether you like it or not. And if I say we're going home..." He grabbed her by her arm. "...we're going home."
"No!" Belle shouted. "Let go of me!" But despite her efforts to break free, Gaston's grip on her remained strong. A part of her couldn't help but feel angry at herself. Gaston was going to take her back to Molyneaux, and her father and Adam had no idea she had even left the tavern yet. Why on earth did she think that riding alone in the woods in the middle of the night was such a good idea?
But unbeknownst to her, help was already on the way. Gaston hadn't yet managed to get her off Philippe when a new rider arrived on the path. "Let go of her this instant!" Adam shouted, almost throwing Maurice off his saddle from stopping Magnifique so abruptly.
"Adam! Papa!" Belle cried. Never in her life had she been so happy to see them.
Gaston sneered as he loosened his grip on Belle's arm. "Why, if it isn't the bookkeeper's little accomplice," he said to Adam. "Tell me, have you shown my fiancée 'the Beast's body' yet?"
"The Beast's body?" Belle repeated. Adam knew about the Beast?
"I said, let her go," Adam said, ignoring Gaston's question.
Gaston laughed. "And who's going to stop me?" With one sweeping gesture, he reached down and brandished his blunderbuss at Adam and Maurice. Maurice's face turned milk-white as he stared at the weapon. Even the prince, who wanted nothing more than to beat Gaston to a pulp, began to hold up his reins tensely, knowing he wouldn't get very far when he was unarmed.
"That's right." Gaston smiled as he put his free arm around Belle's shoulder. "It's been fun following you three around, but Belle and I have a wedding to attend to. So if you'll excuse us now, we'd best be on our way." With that, he grabbed Belle and tossed her on to André. However, he had miscalculated the amount of room on the horse's back. There was not enough room for three riders, and LeFou ended up falling from the saddle just as Gaston steered his stallion in the opposite direction.
"Gaston, wait for me!" Lefou shouted as he got to his feet and waddled after him.
Maurice looked on in despair as they all disappeared into the darkness. "Now what are we going to do?" he asked Adam frantically. Of all the things his daughter had to encounter alone in the woods, it had to be the one person they were trying to avoid – Gaston!
For a moment, the prince was too angry to reply. He knew what he wanted to do, of course: he wanted to be the Beast, so he could rescue Belle, haul that hunter off his horse and teach him a lesson he would never forget. But those days were over now. And as tempting as it was to lose his temper right now, he knew it would get them nowhere at this point. They just had to make do with what they had. And looking around, the prince noticed one important item Gaston had forgotten to take with him: Belle's horse.
"Take Philippe and follow me," he told Maurice.
"Just do it!"
The old man hesitated, then, seeming to think that half a plan from Adam was better than no plan at all, dismounted Magnifique and made his way over to Philippe. The prince nodded at him and then with a loud 'giddy up' sent his horse riding after Gaston.
As Gaston rode through the dark forest, he couldn't get over how easy it had been to get Belle back from that hooded man. He hadn't actually meant to shoot anyone of course, but if he got too close, he'd have no choice. It wouldn't be a hard story to explain to the men back at the tavern. He'd simply tell them that he was saving his wife like the good, brave, noble husband he was, and no one would question him. Well, Belle might have a few things to say about it, but he had ways of making her come around. Soon, very soon, he'd show her the right way of looking at things.
Suddenly, Gaston heard the sound of fast trotting behind him. He turned around, shocked to see that it was him – that ruffian fool! He just didn't give up, did he?
"Faster, André, faster!" he urged his horse. But the stallion was disobeying him, jerking his head up as he tried to pull at his reins. What the heck was going on?
Whatever the reason, it gave the prince more than enough time to catch up to him. As soon as they were close enough to Gaston, he leapt on to André and grabbed on to his back. The extra weight set the hunter off balance and sent both of them tumbling from the saddle. Belle felt herself fall free from the horse and roll unceremoniously on to the wet dirt as Gaston released her.
On the ground, the prince quickly forced himself off a dazed Gaston and crawled over to where Belle had fallen. "Are you alright?" he asked as he helped her sit up.
"Yes," Belle replied. "But you..." she continued as she pointed to his mouth, "You're bleeding!"
The prince curiously touched his lip, surprised to find that there was blood on his fingers. He must have cut it when he fell. He tried to smack his lips to wipe it clean, but a metallic taste still lingered. "It's just a scratch," he said, trying to reassure her.
Before they could speak further, Maurice arrived on the path with Philippe. Remembering that they had to get Belle away from Gaston, the prince pointed to him urgently. "Take Philippe and get out of the woods."
"But what about you?" Belle replied. "You're not staying here are - ?" Suddenly she screamed as Gaston jumped up from behind and grabbed Adam in a chokehold. Adam grunted for a moment and then shifted his weight behind Gaston's leg and elbowed him in the abdomen, sending him falling on his back.
"Just go!" Adam ordered as he tried to pin Gaston down.
Belle was devastated, but knew she had no other choice. As she took her father's hand and climbed on the saddle, she was seized by a terrible feeling of guilt. How could she be so foolish, so selfish? Now Gaston and Adam were at each other's throats, and it was all her fault. She had led them out here all because of a dream, a stupid, meaningless dream!
They had just enough time to ride away before Gaston broke free of the prince's hold, butting him in the head and lifting his hips high enough to throw him off his chest.
"It's over," he heard him growl as he got to his feet. "Belle is mine!"
"Belle doesn't belong to anyone," the prince corrected as he drew himself to full height. "Not me and not you."
Slowly, they began to circle each other around the clearing like two hungry wolves fighting over a meal. The prince mentally tried to count down in his head how long he would need to distract Gaston so Belle and her father could make a clean escape. He just hoped he could hold him off long enough...
But then the first fist went flying and he didn't have time to think about that anymore.
"Whoa, Philippe, steady!" Belle shouted. They were in a part of the woods she had never seen before, and had no idea how close they were to finding a village, or how far they had travelled for that matter. And now that Philippe was frightened, that could only mean that trouble wasn't too far away.
The next moment Belle lost control of the reins as Philippe threw her and her father violently from the saddle. She winced from the soreness of falling from a horse for a second time, and then looked up to see something that made her skin crawl. On the other side of the clearing stood six wolves, smacking their lips hungrily as they slowly advanced towards her and her father.
From behind her, Maurice turned around and gasped. "RUN, Belle!"
With Philippe already long gone, they had no other choice.
The prince was glad he still had the Beast's old reflexes in him, because he was quite sure he wouldn't be able to dodge all of Gaston's punches in time if he didn't. His moves had become a lot more brutish since their fight back at the tavern, and despite his best efforts to avoid him, it wasn't long before Gaston backed him right into a tree. "End of the line," Gaston laughed as the prince tried to catch his breath.
Frantically, he tried to look for an escape. The trees? As a Beast he could have easily bounded to the nearest one, but as a man it was too far away; Gaston would tackle him before he got halfway there. The branches? He looked up at the tree he was standing under and saw, to his relief, that there were two branches just low enough for him to reach. Seeing that Gaston was already running at him, he jumped up and grabbed both of them, kicking Gaston in the chin and sending him stumbling backwards.
Moments later, Gaston sat up, wiping fresh blood from his mouth as he scowled in rage. How dare that hooded man outsmart him - again! He looked back at the tree his opponent had been leaning against and saw that the man had already vanished. "Come on out and fight!" he yelled.
He moved slowly across the clearing, and had just reached over his back and pulled his bow from its strap when he sensed movement behind him. He spun around just in time to see the hooded man jump down from the tree above him. Gaston didn't even have time to reach for an arrow before the man kicked him in the stomach and sent him lying flat on his back, the bow flying out of his hands. The man got a few hard punches in before Gaston rolled to the side, kneed him in the abdomen and flipped him on the ground with his legs.
Now Adam was the one on his back. Gaston reached for his gun and tried to pound his face in with it, but the prince rolled out of the way just in time, his chest landing conveniently on top of the only thing he could possibly defend himself with: Gaston's bow.
The whole time they were running through the forest, all Belle could think about was how fortunate she had been when the Beast had saved her from the wolves all those months ago. She had almost forgotten the terror of hearing their hungry cries, how close they were to snapping at her heels, but now it was coming back to her like a horrid nightmare from which there was no escape. She knew it wouldn't be long before the wolves caught up to them, and then what?
"Belle, the tree!" her father exclaimed suddenly as he pointed to a tall oak tree some twenty feet in front of them.
Belle realized it was their only hope. In what precious time they had, they both ran towards it, Belle giving her father a leg-up to the closest branch. For a man soon approaching his sixties, Maurice was a lot nimbler than he looked, and soon had climbed a good several branches before extending his hand down to help his daughter. "Come on!" he shouted.
Belle took one good look at the wolves running towards her with their teeth bared and then began to climb after him. She was only one branch away when she heard a cracking noise beneath her - the branch she was standing on was about to break! She desperately tried to jump to the next one as it gave way beneath her, but her grip wasn't strong enough and she began to slip.
"Take my hand, hurry!" her father shouted. She frantically tried to reach for him, but gravity claimed her first, and she screamed as she fell through the air. The next thing she heard was her left foot making a loud 'pop' noise as she made contact with the ground followed by excruciating pain. Turning her head around she could see that the wolves were already closing in on her.
"No, BELLE!" her father cried distantly.
Belle was unable to stand on her injured foot, so instead she crawled backwards with her hands until she felt her back hit against the tree. One of the wolves was already advancing on her. She kicked it in the nose with her good leg, hearing it whimper upon contact, but only for a moment before it retaliated and lunged right at her face. With no Beast to save her, she helplessly lifted her arm as its razor sharp teeth dug into her flesh, and screamed.
The prince lowered Gaston's bow at the sound of her cries. Seeing his distraction, the hunter seized his chance and swung at the prince wildly with his gun. Although the prince saw him and managed to block his attack with the bow, he was a split-second too late. The bow broke in two, and then Gaston swung his blunderbuss underneath him and chucked the offending weapon out of Adam's hands. Now he was unarmed. Gaston launched a few well-timed swings at the prince before shoving him and sending him rolling across the ground.
The next thing the prince heard was a ripping noise as something snagged at his cloak. Having stopped spinning, he propped himself up on his right side to see that the bottom of his cape had been caught in a thorn bush. He tried desperately to get up, but it was useless. The thorns held on to his garment like a vise, and when he tried to crawl forwards they pulled him back until he felt like he was choking.
To his left, he could hear Gaston laugh as he watched him struggle. "Adam, is it?" he said as he stepped closer, knowing his opponent wouldn't be out of there in a hurry. "You know, I'm starting to think that there was another reason why you helped Belle out of the village, wasn't there? You weren't...in love with her, were you?" When Adam answered by trying to break free again, Gaston smiled. "Well, sorry to disappoint you, but Belle was meant to be mine from the moment I laid eyes on her. I may have given you a fair warning, taken it easy on you the first or the second time, but now... now I'm calling the shots."
And that was when the prince heard the unmistakable clicking sound of Gaston loading his gun. He was going to shoot him! I can't die, not now! he thought. He needed to stay alive, to protect Belle and her father!
Again, he struggled to break free from his entrapments, but the thorns held his cape firmly in place. He would just have to leave it behind. In one quick gesture, he rolled to his left and unclasped his cloak fastener. He crawled out of his cape and scrambled to his feet just as Gaston finished putting the ramrod back in the barrel of his blunderbuss.
Now face to face, Gaston glared at his attacker and ran at him, intending to knock him off his feet. But the prince grabbed the barrel of the gun and pushed it back at Gaston until his arms started to burn. Despite his best efforts, Gaston was stronger and shoved the prince down on his back. Adam gritted his teeth as he pressed his hands against the gun barrel, trying to prevent Gaston from pounding him straight into the ground.
Now that the man wasn't wearing his cloak, Gaston could see that his attacker was in fact a young man, maybe not much older than himself. He may have even been quite handsome, though not as handsome as Gaston, of course! And those eyes. Where had he seen those eyes before?
"You..." he said.
And then the prince kicked him squarely in the stomach. Gaston went falling backwards, retching in pain. Enraged that he had let his guard down, he got up and ran blindly at Adam, forgetting who was carrying the blunderbuss now. The prince swung the rifle. The last thing Gaston knew was the hard and painful sensation of metal slamming into the side of his head, followed by several bursts of light.
Then the prince jumped over Gaston's body and ran through the woods with the urgency of a soldier answering his call to arms.
In what Belle was sure were her last moments on earth, she tried to think reassuring thoughts, thoughts of her mother and the Beast, and how she would see them again soon.
Between the black dots clouding her vision, she could just see the alpha wolf staring at her hungrily with its red eyes, its breath both hot and rancid on her face. Whatever it planned to do to her, she hoped that it would be quick and painless. And she hoped that once she crossed over, God in heaven would forgive her for what she had done to the Beast.
It was only through skills he'd acquired from ten years of hunting down wolves in the forest that the prince was able to track down Belle and Maurice as quickly as he did. He skid to a halt at the edge of a clearing in time to see a pack of at least half a dozen wolves advancing towards something blue propped against a tree – Belle! A horrible chill ran down his spine. Was she –? No, she was still alive, but her face was deathly pale, and the right sleeve of her dress was staining a deep crimson. Above her, in the tree, he could just see Maurice making some strange noises and gestures with his arms, trying to stop the wolves from coming any closer. Whether he thought his methods were working or not escaped the prince; the alpha was already ready to pounce. If only I were still a Beast! he thought in anguish. If he were, he knew he could tear the wolf apart in moments.
But while he no longer had sharp teeth or claws, the prince realized that he did have a weapon: Gaston's blunderbuss was still in his hands.
His hands shook violently as he prepared the gun to fire. He knew how to use a firearm, of course. He'd taken some hunting lessons with Lumiere before the curse. But he'd used a different type of rifle then, not a blunderbuss. Opening the pan, he could see that Gaston had already filled it with black powder and that the cock had a piece of flint lodged in it. No question about it, he'd loaded it and intended to use it.
Looking back at the clearing, he could see Maurice chucking his shoes at the advancing wolves, desperate to get their attention. He knew he didn't have much time. He raised the blunderbuss, then hesitated. He knew this gun was shorter than a standard hunting rifle, and would be harder to aim far distance. What if he hit Belle instead of the wolf? What if he missed entirely? He had nothing to reload with, and he hadn't even thought of searching Gaston to see if he had any extra ammunition before he ran off.
Just focus, he told himself firmly. You can't afford to be worrying about that right now. He breathed in deeply through his nose, took a few steps forward and pulled the hammer back to full cock. He centred the blunderbuss as best he could, imagining the alpha wolf baring its ugly yellow teeth at Belle before it pounced. Then, he fired.
A low rumble of thunder roused Belle from her semi-conscious state. She heard a 'thud' noise as a line of grey and white fur appeared, just a few inches away from her knees. There was a pattering of footsteps and alarmed whimpers, but who...? What...?
Belle struggled to keep her eyes open as she watched a tall figure running out of the thicket towards her. She tried to make out its face, but it was like looking through a fogged up window. She tried to move but the combined pain in her leg and arm made her sick to her stomach. All she could see clearly as the figure stopped in front of her was its eyes. Deep blue eyes.
There was a sweet smell of damp earth in the air. Then nothing.