Chapter 1: Gaston’s Story
“Turn and face me, beast! Turn and fight a real man!”
Gaston puffed out his chest and prepared to lunge.
He was used to this…used to the constant conflict of man against beast, having hunted in the woods surrounding his native village since his youth. His father had been a royal forester before him, and the son had learned the twang of the crossbow and the bang of the musket could be akin to music during his lessons in the art of the hunt. When his father had died, he alone had been the provider for his family.
At sixteen, he was called into the wars, along with all the other young men in the village, and his skills learned as a hunter caused him to defy convention and rise in the ranks, without the benefit of highborn connections. He was proud of it, proud down to the drumming of his proud peasant heart. He beat the odds of blood and fire and survived to tell the tale, time and time again, to his fellow townsmen, gathered around with glasses of watered-down wine raised in his honor. The praise went more than a little to his head.
But his heart was fixated on only one of the village beauties, who seemed to be quite unimpressed with his oft-proclaimed exploits. She was not a true provincial, but Parisian born. She was beautiful, but not a garden flower easily plucked. No, she was wild, and had grown in free ground. She was fiercely independent, and her dreams were as broad as the waters of the Seine and as high as the city steeples. Her sense of sophistication towered over that of the ill-educated country populace.
To Gaston, she was like some rare exotic bird to be pursued on the hunt. He wanted to win her for a prize, as he had won merit in the wars, as he had won the skins of animals that adorned his cottage as trophies from the hunt. Now he wanted her to adorn his home as a good little wife to him, and raise him a good little family as his own mother had done for his father. Coming from a family of eight children, many of whom had died in infancy or early childhood, it was the only life he could imagine.
Gaston was a profoundly proud, but also a profoundly simple man, befitting his hearty peasant stock. The generations had changed little from father to son in rural Normandy, and from mother to daughter. This was a double-edged sword, preserving many good things, but also blocking out many others. Viewpoints were narrow, and tradition seemed unshakable. Expectations were deeply engrained, and Gaston was no different than any of the others.
He was genuine in his desire for a family, and intended to do all that was fitting and proper as head of a house. He would provide for his family with his hunting ability and military pension; no wife or child of his would know want. His sons would be strong, he was sure, and his daughters attractive. He would teach his sons to hunt alongside him in the forest, and awe his daughters, as he did most of the swooning females of the village, with tales of his wartime adventures. This was the way the world worked—or at least, his world.
But Belle, the Parisian beauty, was the daughter of an inventor, who had reared her in the ideas of the Enlightenment. Her mother had challenged all established prejudices and pursued the secret study of medicine, ultimately dying as a result of her care of plague victims. But she had been fearless always, and her daughter inherited this trait.
A whole new world was peaking on the horizon, and she wanted to be a part of it. She wanted to make her own mark on history, and see her own name written in its pages. To be subsumed in a marriage with a backwoods marksman, to be constantly pregnant and constantly cooking over an open oven, was not her idea of a blissful future. She wanted to see her dreams come to life, not crumble to dust and be swept away by a housewife’s broom.
But this, Gaston could not understand. His upbringing could not account for it in a woman. Surely he could bring her happiness. He was strikingly handsome, was he not? He had proved his courage and skill time and again; he was no foppish milksop. He was the town hero; why would any right-thinking female spurn him? He couldn’t understand, and he wouldn’t understand that the desire for freedom ran deeper in her than the desire for security.
But her resistance only seemed to heighten his desire. So he handled the concept of courtship just like he handled hunting, and he proceeded to pursue her like a flighty creature on the wing.
And that flight had led him to this high tower, and this crossbow cocked, and this beast before him. The time had come; the hour was at hand. He would show the world his mettle.
Staring contemptuously at the form of the hairy, horned creature leaning despondently over the edge of the turret, Gaston decided this would be his ultimate chance to prove his manhood to Belle, by killing the beast that had held her prisoner. Yes, she had tried to stop him from the pursuit in town, blurting out something about the creature having once been a man. At this, Gaston had simply snorted. A man, indeed!
No, all he saw before him was a monster, and his hunter’s adrenalin rushed through him as he affixed the arrow in his bow. He would make a rug of his skin, and hang his horns above his mantle, he silently vowed. He would win the ultimate conflict of man versus beast…
“Face me, beast!”
Slowly, the creature turned, and Gaston recognized melancholy in its eyes. It gave him momentary pause. What a strange thing, those eyes…did they mirror his own when his mother had passed from the fever, and he had felt that the only soft touch of his life in a hard world had vanished, too?
But no, no, the hunter banished this thought from his mind. It was only a monster, and it was going to die. So the arrow was loosed from the bow and lodged itself in the beast’s back. The wounded creature roared in pain and its eyes flared, bloodshot and blood-lusting, as it charged towards Gaston. Another arrow rent the air and penetrated the beast’s chest, but did nothing to stop it from lunging at its attacker, and they began to struggle wildly at the far side of the turret.
Gaston received a hard knock as sharp claws slashed across his arm, and he was flipped over, dangling halfway along the guard wall of the tower. He tried not to focus on the sheer drop below, but instead dropped his hand to his belt and unsheathed a dagger. He had hunted bears upon Mount Ardennes, and the blade was specially crafted to cut through tough hide. He thrust it up, and it pierced through the creature’s side. Blood spurted everywhere, and the beast staggered back, a groan of mortal injury drooling from its fanged mouth. It was panting hard now, and fell on its side.
Now was the end game, and the hunter withdrew a pistol from within his coat. It hovered in the air for a moment…and then, before it could be fired, an echo reverberated along the tower, of someone climbing the high stairs…
“Gaston, non, arrêter! No, stop!”
A moment later, Belle stood before him, her chestnut hair wild from the hard ride to the castle, her eyes shimmering with desperation. “Listen to me, Gaston, listen! He’s not an animal…he’s a man, with a mind and heart and immortal soul like you and I! He can think and he can choose, like you and I!”
“You think that is a man, ma belle?” Gaston chortled, gesturing to the fallen creature with his pistol. “My dear, muddleheaded maiden, you are becoming as mad as your father…”
“Gaston, listen…I know him! He has the soul of a man, I tell you! Do not let your eyes deceive you. We have spoken of art and music and philosophy alike! He owns a library, and has read it, and understands it! He traveled the world once, and has memories of his travels! Do you now see? He is a man…”
“And I suppose I am not, for the lack of your fine education, or the taking of the world tour?” he growled, suddenly infused with fresh jealousy. “But that I have fought with my hands and journeyed only to follow the horn of the hunt or the battle, you see me as the beast, instead!”
“No….that’s not true…”
“Yes, it is,” he snarled. “You’re so smug in your learning, your city ways, that all my efforts are as dirt to you…a man who has made good of his natural abilities and put them to use is but an animal to you, unless his schooling puts a fancy tongue in his mouth.”
“You are not a beast,” she conceded hoarsely, drawing closer to him. “But if you kill this man, you will have become a murderer.”
“I have killed many a man already!” he shouted. “I have fought the English and the Dutch. I have watched Catholic and Protestant pitted against each other, like cocks in a ring. I have gunned down our own French farm boys when the starving time set them to rioting. I have had blood clog my eyes time and again, human blood, Belle. And do you think you can ever forget the sight of empty human eyes that you just sucked out the life from? Maybe…viewing them as beasts…makes it easier.”
She closed her eyes tightly, noting something in his tone that struck her to the heart. “Gaston…I am sorry. I didn’t understand before…”
“You never even tried,” he spat. “You never bothered to listen, never offered such sympathy or understanding as you do for a mangy animal with lordly learning. You heard my stories with boredom, and my conversation with disgust.”
“Because you were boastful and brash, and treated me as battle booty to be won. Besides, all the village acclaimed you; any other girl would have been happy to…”
“Any other girl is not made of the same stuff as you. Believe it or not, you and I are closer than you think. We are both made of fire…”
“But you would douse mine, and brag of it as a triumph…to subdue me and subsume all my own dreams…”
“I would have loved you, Belle,” he blurted, and his voice sounded broken now. “As much as my father loved my mother, I would have loved you.”
“I’m sorry…but love is not a thing that can be forced,” she replied, almost sadly.
Gaston shrugged, and then made a jerking gesture with his pistol. “Out of the way, jeune fille.”
“No! I won’t let you murder him!”
“I said…out of the way!”
“It’s not even a fair fight! What courage will it prove on your part? He’s bleeding to death! Let me go to him….”
“Never!” he bellowed, grabbing her hard by the arm. “Never will I let a woman spurn me for a beast!”
“If you do this thing, there will be no beast here but you!”
Flying into a panic, she started struggling with him, desperate to get the gun away from him before it was too late. It was dark except for the streaks of lightening shattering the sky in the distance, and silent, except for the cruel, crackling thunder that rebounded in the distance…and covered the sound of the pistol’s shot, and muffled the scream of the woman who fell, blood-bathed, in the high turret where no one below could hear.
Avellina Balestri (aka Rosaria Marie) is one of the founding members and the Editor-in-Chief of The Fellowship of the King, a literary magazine with a strong Tolkienite influence (which, by the way, is open to submissions). She reads and writes extensively, and eagerly seeks out the deeper spiritual significance of popular fandoms such as The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, Star Trek, Star Wars, and The Hunger Games. And yes, she does have a soft spot in her heart for classic Disney movies, The Princess Bride, and Merlin 😉 She is also a recording artist, singing traditional folk songs and her own compositions as well as playing the penny whistle and bodhran drum. She draws her inspiration from the Ultimate Love and Source of Creativity, and hopes to share that love and creativity with others.