Chapter Eight

Belle and Chip rode back to the castle in silence, despite Belle's repeated attempts at conversation. Chip was still too shocked to say anything. He finally broke his silence when he and Belle arrived at her cottage. Belle slid off the horse, and Chip, who had finally gotten over his shock, burst out with:

"That was amazing!"

"What was amazing?" Belle asked, looking up at Chip with a puzzled expression on her face.

"The way you spoke to the prince," he gushed. "And the way you slapped him! No one's ever spoken up to the prince like that! Everyone's terrified of him. How did you do it? "

"I don't know," Belle admitted. "I don't usually go around slapping people. I'm not really a violent and confrontational person, but I felt so empowered after I saved the prince's life that I changed into a different person, almost. I shouldn't have done it. He could easily have locked me up or had me killed. But he really needed a good slap."

"You should come over more often," he told her.

"I don't think so," Belle laughed. "I would probably be killed if I went back there."

"You're right," agreed Chip. "I'm dreading going back to the castle myself. The prince is going to be in a dreadful mood for weeks. Mind you, he's in a dreadful mood all the time so I don't think much will change."

Belle laughed and smiled warmly at him.

"It was nice seeing you, Chip," she said, turning towards her house. "Have a safe journey back."

"I was just wondering… D-do you want to… I thought maybe we could have a picnic together sometime. We could read books together and stuff."

Belle bit her lip and sighed.

"Chip, you're nice and all, but I am just not interested in having a romantic relationship," she told him "I don't want to be hurt and let down by a man. I never want to get married."

"I-I wouldn't hurt you, and I-I'm not asking you to marry me," Chip stammered.

"Courtship eventually leads to marriage," Belle pointed out. "I don't want to lead you on. I want to travel. I want to visit all the places I've read about in my books. I could never do that if I was tied down with a husband."

"But we could travel together!"

"Sooner or later we'd end up with a baby and we would have to settle down in some dull little village," Belle replied. "That might be fine for some people, but I couldn't bear it. I need adventure in my life. I'd probably end up leaving you sooner or later. I don't want to do that. I don't want to be like my mother. And, well… I just don't like you in that way, you know? You're an interesting and kind boy, and any girl would be lucky to have you, but I don't like you in any romantic sense. I'm sorry, but you deserve someone who really loves you and won't desert you. If I did ever get married, I'd have to really, really love him."

"I understand," Chip said quietly.

"Good." Belle smiled. "Thank you for taking me home. And thank you for understanding, Chip."

Belle's little village was struck by a vicious heat wave in the last week of July. It was unbearably hot. Belle had started sleeping with every window in the house open and her chemise soaked with water from the river. Gaston had taken to parading around the village with his shirt off, to the delight of most of the women in town. Unfortunately for him, Belle found the sight of his bulging muscles, jungle-like chest hair and perspiration soaked hair to be utterly revolting and tried to avoid him(and his repugnant scent) as much as possible. Belle couldn't even bear to read anymore, preferring instead to go swimming in the river and take long walks through the shady woods.

The beginning of August brought on a tremendous change in weather as France was plagued with some of the most awful storms that the country had ever seen. Business in the village was shut down for a full week as the streets became flooded. Monsieur Gaubert barricaded up the doors of his shop to stop the water from seeping in and destroying his books. Laurence Leclaire swore that he had been struck by lightning three times when he had gone out to feed his cows one night, but old Leclaire had never been the most truthful of men.

The three week mark came and went and Maurice still hadn't returned. Belle chose not to worry, though. Perpignan was a long way away, after all. Of course he would not arrive home exactly when he said he would, especially considering the awful weather. After another week went by and he had still not returned, Belle really began to worry. Her father didn't have the best sense of direction. He could have gotten lost and ended up in Prussia or Moldavia or Spain. When five weeks had gone by and he still had not returned home, she decided that something had to be done. She had to go after her father. But how? Philippe was their only horse and he was with Maurice. She didn't know anyone in the village well enough to ask to borrow their horse. She could ask Gaston for help, but he would probably laugh and tell her that she was better off without "that crazy old man" in her life.

Belle would have to search for Maurice on her own. She fetched her cloak from her bedroom, stuffed a map, half a loaf of bread, and all the money she could find into a small satchel, and headed towards the door. She took a deep breath, curled her hand around the knob, and pulled open the door. A huge gust of wind knocked Belle right onto her back. Maybe this wasn't such a good idea. No, she had to find Papa. Belle struggled back to her feet and forced herself through the door. The rain fell down on her in bucket loads as soon as she stepped through the door.

Belle started off down the road towards the forest. Her wet clothes weighed her down like rocks. Her entire body was soaked. Her shoes were completely coated in mud. A peal of thunder rattled the dark grey sky. Belle shivered. The path became muddier and muddier as she entered the forest.

"Where are you, Papa?" she moaned.

For a few moments she considered heading back home. It wasn't too late. It was warm and dry there. There was nice big fireplace she could curl up next to, with a book in one hand, a cup of warm milk in the other, and a fuzzy blanket draped over her shoulders.

No, she had to find Papa. It could take weeks, months, or even years, but she was not going to go home without him. As she ventured further into the forest, it became harder and harder to walk. She was literally knee-deep in mud. It felt as though she was pulling a boulder along as she walked. Each leg felt as though it weighed two hundred pounds. There was no way that this situation could possibly get any worse.

As it turned out, the situation could get worse. Much, much worse.

A wolf's cry filled the air. Belle tripped over a fallen tree branch and fell head first into a deep mud puddle. She turned around and came face to face with a set of the sharpest teeth she had ever seen. She picked herself up and began to run as fast as she could. Unfortunately, the wolves could run much faster than she could. There were at least ten of them, all with sharp, terrifying yellow teeth and all with a hungry look on their face. She didn't think she could take this anymore. Think of Papa, she told herself.

She lost her footing at the top of a hill and tumbled down headfirst into another puddle of mud. Belle tried to pick herself back up, but it was no use. She had hurt her foot too badly to walk. There was nothing left to do except wait for death. The wolves circled around her. She held out her arms to them.

"Come on," she said to them. "Come get me. Might as well make this quick."

Suddenly, a blinding golden light filled the sky. Belle covered her eyes. It was far too bright to look at it. It lasted for a full five minutes, and when the light cleared the wolves were gone. Belle looked around and blinked. What had just happened? Where were the wolves? In the distance, she could see a tall, dark figure disappearing into the forest.

"Come back!" she called. "Were you the one who saved me? I really appreciate it! Please come back! I want to thank you properly."

The mysterious person did not come back. Belle poked her swollen, aching foot and sighed. She was safe from the wolves at least, but it was still raining and she couldn't walk. She was going to be stuck here until someone passed by. If someone passed by, she corrected herself. How could she have been so stupid? Her father could be anywhere. Why had she thought that it was a good idea to look for him alone and without a horse? Her stomach rumbled. Belle groaned. She was probably going to starve to death if the wolves didn't come back first. Remembering the loaf of bread, she grabbed her satchel and pulled it out. It looked more like a big wad of mush now, but at least it was food.

Prince Adam had done nothing but sulk for the past five weeks. He wandered about his castle for hours, only stopping to stare emptily out a window. His servants were both worried and relieved. The prince didn't yell at them anymore. In fact he barely said anything. A week ago, Adam had been summoned to Versailles to meet with the King and Queen. He had barely said a word the entire time, even when Cogsworth accidentally tripped him as they walked through the palace. He hadn't even been annoyed when the carriage broke down on the way back home.

"I'm sorry, Master," Cogsworth said apologetically. "The wheel has come off. The driver says that it will take an hour to repair."

"It's okay," Adam muttered. "I'll walk home. It's not far. Where is the umbrella?"

"Are you sure, Master?" asked Cogsworth as he handed the umbrella and a lantern to the prince.

"It's faster this way."

Adam stomped through the forest, deep in thought. He just could not stop thinking about that girl. How dare she speak up to him! How dare she slap him! His cheek still felt dirty. She had some nerve. He was absolutely furious at her. He went into a silent rage every time he thought about her. He tried to stop thinking about her, but he couldn't. He knew why, too. He had enjoyed being reprimanded. No one had spoken like that to him before. As a result, he had developed a slight infatuation with the girl. He could never admit it to anyone, of course. He was a mighty prince and she was a mere, weak peasant.

Adam nearly tripped as he stepped on something soft and squishy. The mysterious object cried out in pain. He peered down at it.

"You again!" he exclaimed. "Why are you all covered in mud?"

"Good evening," said Belle meekly. "Dreadful weather, isn't it?"

"Why do I keep seeing you?"

"Fate, I guess," she replied with a slight, painful laugh. "Can you help me?"

"Why are you lying in a puddle of mud?" asked Adam. "Is it part of a game that peasants play to keep their minds off the fact that they are completely worthless?"

"I was running away from a pack of wolves and I fell down here," Belle explained, trying not to look offended. "Can you take me home? I can't walk. My foot hurts dreadfully. I think it might be broken."

"Why should I help you?" Adam snarled. "You slapped me. You're lucky I didn't lock you up."

"I saved your life," Belle pointed out. "You owe me."

Adam considered this.

"Fine. I'll take you home. But we're even after this, remember."

"Whatever you say," said Belle, relieved.

"Wait here. I'll get my servants. They can carry you back to the carriage."

"Why don't you carry me yourself," asked Belle, batting her eyelids. She wasn't the sort of girl who flirted with men to get what she wanted, but she was desperate. "You look very strong."

Adam looked revolted.

"And get mud all over me?" he asked, disgusted. "No, thank you."

"Come on," Belle purred. "A big, strong prince like you couldn't possibly be afraid of a little mud. It would be much faster if you carried me."

"No," he declared defiantly. "You will wait here for my servants."

"Why are you so reluctant?" asked Belle with a sigh. "Maybe you aren't strong enough to carry me. Maybe you are weak and afraid to admit it. I'm not surprised. You are rather weedy."

Adam fumed. How dare she suggest that he was weak!

"You hold these," he said, handing her the umbrella and lantern. He picked her up into his arms and wobbled slowly through the trees back to where Cogsworth and the drive were. She was much heavier than she looked.

"Master!" cried Cogsworth when he saw them. "You're back! And just in time. We've fixed the wheel. Who is that you've got in your arms?"

"Cogsworth, the girl has hurt her foot and cannot walk," Adam said. "We need to take her home."

Cogsworth looked at Belle curiously.

"Aren't you the girl who saved the Master's life?" he asked.

Belle smiled shyly and nodded.

"What a coincidence!" he exclaimed. "If she is hurt then maybe we should take her back to the castle with us. We have one of the best doctors in the country."

"No, you don't have to do that," said Belle quickly. "Just take me back to my house. I'll be fine."

"What do you think, Master?"

Adam stared at Belle for a few moments.

"I think we should take the girl back to the castle with us," he said finally..

"There we have it," declared Cogsworth. "You can't ignore an order from your prince, Mademoiselle."

Belle and Adam locked eyes. For just one brief moment, she could have sworn she saw him smile at her.