Chapter Three: Red Rose

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He was an hour out of town when it occurred to Pierre that he might have made a mistake. It would perhaps have been more prudent to spend the night in town and set out at first light. The saving setting out at once incurred would mean nothing if he got lost on route and never returned.

Getting lost was a sort of speciality of Pierre's. If he could have been paid for wrong turns and missed directions he would have made his fortune long ago and never lost it. It was a wonder he had made it to town so promptly in the first place. In the ever-growing gloom of his return journey, with his mind darkened by demons, he had no hope of staying on track.

"No, that can't be right..." he muttered to himself. "We should have passed through another town by now... Perhaps that last right should have been a left, or maybe I went wrong at the one before..." He glanced over his shoulder; the trail behind him was inky black, the sky above starless and choked by tree branches.

"There's no point going back - I haven't seen signs of civilisation for hours. Onwards must be the best course. I'll stop at the next house I pass and ask for directions." He continued on, despite Philippe's obvious hesitance; the horse seemed intend on returning in the direction they had come from. A few metres down the path it became all to clear why.

High pitched howls echoed on all sides, accompanied by low bestial growls. Wolves. They were on him before he could think of escape, biting at his terrified horse's hooves as Philippe cantered uncontrollably down the path.

They hit a dip in the pathway and Philippe stumbled. Pierre was thrown from his saddle and the horse continued on, appearing not to notice his rider's absence in his panic. Pierre scrambled to his feet, the wolves too loud and too close behind him.

Pierre began to run as fast as his injured leg would allow, hobbling through the undergrowth as tears began to streak his cheeks. A wide road opened on his left and he stumbled down it at once. He was so desperate to escape that he didn't look ahead of himself until he was some way down the path.

A castle loomed ahead of him, a monstrosity of grey stone and gargoyles. Tarnished silver gates guarded the entrance, but they opened soundlessly when Pierre pushed against them. It was a less than welcoming refuge, but with the howls of the wolves closing in behind him, he didn't have any other choice.

The grounds were as silent as the gates and he walked the winding driveway between bushes of bright rose blooms without any signs of human life. The flowers bled into the grey around them, a stain of colour against an otherwise lifeless landscape.

The door at the entrance to the castle was five times the size of an ordinary human. It was wooden, aged and smooth with use. Pierre knocked at it tentatively. "Hello?" he called, after a moment passed without answer. "Is anyone there? I'm lost and in need of somewhere to stay. Could you help-" as he spoke, he leant a hand against the door and was surprised when it opened for him.

'Thank you!" he said softly, expecting to find a servant on the other side. But the cavernous entranceway beyond the door was as empty as the garden before it.

"Hello?" he called out again, confused now. The entranceway was as welcoming as the castle's exterior had suggested it would be. Gloomy and dusty with disuse, it was lit by a single candelabra.

He wavered on the doorstep for a moment, unsure if he should enter. Did the door open as an invitation for him to go inside? Was the castle abandoned?

The wolves howled again behind him. Would the gates hold them? He would rather face the potential wrath of the castle's owner on finding a trespasser than death between the jaws of the wolves. He stepped inside.

He just needed somewhere to stay until daylight. A dusty entranceway was better than nothing - there would be no need for him to venture further inside. He took a seat on an aged velvet couch beside the door, determined to move no further, but barely ten minutes passed before the delicious smell of coq au vin filled the air.

Pierre's stomach rumbled. So the castle was inhabited after all. Perhaps a servant would come past in a minute. He readied himself to explain his story, hoping they wouldn't send him back out into the cold. But minutes passed without further activity. Pierre tapped his foot against the floor and looked around the hall. It gave the distinct impression of former grandeur. Colossal portraits looking the walls, their paint faded, cracked and marked with strange, animal-like slashes. An intricate, unlit chandelier hung from the centre of the ceiling, it's crystal pendants shimmered dimly in what little light could be found in the hall. But the centrepiece of the space was the sweeping central staircase which led up to a second level concealed behind shadows.

A creak roused Pierre from his musings. He looked to the left, where an oak door had swung open. Through it, he could see a fire crackling merrily and a small table laid out for a single dinner.

"Hello?" Pierre called out again, getting to his feet and walking towards the door. "I'm not sure if you heard me before. I am Monsieur Pierre Molineux. I was lost in the woods and hoped you might provide me with shelter." On the other side of the door, the small reception room was as empty as the rest of the property appeared to be. But someone had to have cooked and laid out that meal...

Pierre was confused and uneasy, but he was also starving and his stomach won the argument over his nerves. He stepped in the room. When no one accosted him, he stepped forward again, towards the steaming plate of food.

Before he knew it, he was wolfing down the dinner and gulping the red wine that had been left beside it. When he finished he looked around himself once more, wondering what he should do next.

This room looked more frequently used than the spaces he had seen before. It was cosy, warm and inviting, although Pierre noticed he was sat in the only chair. Whoever lived here wasn't used to visitors. He was speculating once more about the owner when the trundle of wheels caught his attention. A small trolley, loaded with desert and tea, was wheeling into the room. Alone. It came to a stop beside him. Moments later, the far door to the room closed with a soft click.

Pierre suddenly wasn't so sure he was safer inside than with the wolves. But the invisible spirits that inhabited this place didn't seem to be threatening him so far - not unless they were trying to fatten him up for something at any rate.

He ate the desert and drained the tea then closed his eyes, letting the full meal and the warmth of the fire lull him into a deep, dreamless sleep.

When he awoke, he found that the parlour's curtains had been thrown open and the weak winter sunlight was streaming in to the room. From the window, he was astounded to see Philippe waiting patiently for him by the gate.

Breakfast had been lain out for him where dinner had been the night before. He ate his fill then got to his feet. "Thank you," he called out to the empty castle, feeling a little foolish.

He made his way out of the castle and back into the grounds. The rose bushes were even more beautiful in daylight, without the threat of the wolves at his back. He was reminded of Beau's request as he passed them. Just one gorgeous bloom would surely go unmissed. His invisible host had been so generous so far.

He heard the growl as soon as he snapped the rose's delicate stem. At first, he thought it was the wolves, waiting in the grounds for his emergence from the castle, but the sight that met him when he spun round was far more chilling.

"I'm sorry! Please forgive me! I'll do anything!"

With an inhuman growl, the beast advanced. 

{The invisible servants are an original tale detail I wanted to keep, as they remind me of the classical story of Cupid and Psyche. What do you think of them so far? Did you catch the allusion to a Disney favourite? Comment and let me know if you did! And please click the star to vote if you enjoyed.}

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