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Beauty and the Beast: The Only One Who Didn't Run Away Read online

  “Were it not for the beast, we never would have made it here in the first place,” she points out.

  The animals are beginning to surround us on all sides. They sneak glances but move steadily forward toward the large barn in the distance. “That may be, but without your stone, we never would have seen it for what it was. I would have been at the mercy of the witch. And she would have shown me none, for certain. Did your friend ever mention a connection between the stone and a witch?”

  Beauty shakes her head. “She never knew where her mother was headed when she left home, or even how she came by the stone in the first place.”

  Mumford stops beside a large red barn and motions for all of us to gather around him. I cannot help but steal glances at the animals. I am fairly certain all of them were once human, but I cannot bear to think on it. At least I still had the body of a human (well, mostly). There is nothing human about any of these poor creatures, except the expressions in their eyes. Sadness, fear, frustration, and now, a bit of hope. “I must not let them down,” I whisper fervently. If Beauty hears me, she does not comment.

  Mumford leads the crowd a few more feet until we are hidden from view behind the barn, and then steps onto a bale of hay to address the crowd. “Attention please, everyone. I am Mumford, formerly known as The Witch’s Pig.”

  At this, the crowd stomps, crows, snorts, bleats, barks, and flaps.

  “Shh,” he says. “We must move fast.” He gestures for me to stand beside him. “This is, er, I do not actually know your name?”

  “I am Prince Riley from one of the seven kingdoms due south from here.” I stand up straight like Mother always taught us when addressing the townsfolk. My voice still sounds strange to me, like a boy’s voice. Which, of course, it is. I admit, there were elements of being the beast that I will actually miss — the deep voice being one of them. I clear my throat, and try to sound older. “This is my friend Beauty. She kissed me and broke the witch’s curse. She will do the same for you.”

  More barking and all-around happy animal noises erupt. Mumford holds up a hand and they quickly settle down. I continue. “When everyone has transformed back to their former selves, the witch’s power will be gone. At least we hope so.” I do not want to admit that we have thought no further than that. We will need to keep her from starting all over again. But first things first.

  Beauty joins me in front of the crowd. I notice for the first time that her arms and cheeks are scratched from the branches during our run. She never even complained.

  “Hello, everyone,” she says. “I would like to ask the women to stand to the left, and the men to the right.”

  A flurry of fur and feathers later, they are sorted into two nearly even groups. I cannot figure out Beauty’s intent. She turns to me and Mumford and says, “Pucker up, boys, you have some kissing to do, too.”

  Mumford looks from one group to the next, and then lets out a big belly laugh. “Of course! The girl is right!” He positions himself in front of a fluffy white poodle, and points next to him at a particularly large brown sheep. The poodle wags her tail happily as she looks up at Mumford. My sheep eyes me warily. I do not blame her. I have never kissed an animal in my life, since Mother does not allow pets in the house. I may have kissed one of the royal horses when I was three, but that is the extent of it.

  “Let us begin!” Beauty says. She races over to the first in her group, and kisses an owl right on the top of his head. Without waiting to see what happens, she moves on to a frog, and then a turtle. Mumford has already kissed his poodle and has moved on to a three-toed sloth. He elbows me. “Get to the kissing!”

  Out of the corner of my eye, I can see the animals Beauty kissed are falling to the ground, transforming in a tangle of limbs. I quickly turn back to my sheep and kiss her lightly on the ear. It felt like kissing my blanket at home. Not that I have actually done that, of course.

  Without looking back, I move quickly down the line. An antelope, a cat, three rabbits, and a hedgehog. Judging from the muffled shouts and weeping and shuffling going on behind me, I surmise my kisses are doing their job. I am about to kiss a parrot when I catch Beauty’s eye. She smiles at me over the head of a donkey and winks.

  I smile and kiss my parrot square on the beak. I’m about to move on to the next animal when I realize Mumford and I have no more animals in our group. Working together has allowed us to move more quickly than Beauty, who still has a handful to attend to. I consider asking some of the newly transformed women to help, but they are all still very disoriented and most are having trouble even sitting up without help. In hindsight, Mumford recovered very quickly following his own transformation. I wonder what his special gift is. Strength maybe, or bravery. Beauty has just finished kissing a mule, and is bending down toward a large gray buffalo.

  “Wait a moment,” I say, hurrying to join her. When the buffalo sees me, he shuffles backward until his hind legs are up against the wall of the barn. I squint at him. The shiny almost-silver-colored coat, the horns so low they scrape the ground. “I have seen you before,” I tell him. “You were with the witch the day I was cursed.” He only lowers his head further, his horns digging small ditches in the soft ground.

  “Do not be afraid,” Beauty says, approaching him cautiously. She rests her palm on his back, but he bristles and shies away from her hand.

  “I am loathe to rush you, m’lady,” Mumford says, joining us. “But we must finish our task and get everyone to safety.”

  We both glance back at the twenty-five or so fully human people huddled together. Old and young (though none as young as I), they are talking excitedly, their eyes alternately frightened, cautious, and gleeful.

  Beauty turns away and quickly kisses the cowering buffalo. Soon he is a tall, thin man, huddled in a ball. He pulls his silver cloak tight around himself and refuses to look at us.

  Beauty bends down beside him. “Sir? Are you all right? You are amongst friends here.”

  He shakes his head. “I failed the royal family. I tried to warn them, but I could not.”

  She looks up at me, surprised, then back down at him. “You look familiar to me. Have we ever met?”

  He glances up at her and shakes his head.

  “I do know you, though,” she murmurs. “Wait! You are the man at the mill. The one who can tell if someone is telling a fib!”

  He nods, wincing. “That is I. All the witch does is tell fibs. And I could do nothing to stop it.”

  Beauty leans close to me and whispers, “When I saw him last, he was confident and strong. Now he is a broken man.”

  I kneel down. In my most princely voice, I say, “Sir, you are not to blame. You tried to warn us as best you could, and in return you were struck by the witch. I am certain when all of this is over, our kingdom would be lucky to have a man such as yourself working with us.”

  He meets my gaze. “Truly?”

  I nod.

  He pushes himself into a sitting position. “Thank you, Your Highness. I shall pull myself together.”

  Satisfied that he won’t have a problem on his hands, Mumford helps the man the rest of the way up, and brings him over to the other group. “Run as fast as you can,” he instructs everyone. “Hide in the cellar of the slop house. The witch never goes there. I shall come for you when it is safe.” Before they turn to go, they lob oaths of loyalty and words of gratitude to me and Beauty, then take off, running and stumbling and helping each other up. They disappear around the side of the barn. I do not see where they go from there.

  Just as I’m about to ask Mumford where we can find the witch, a black cat with white spots rushes up to us. It is the same one the witch was petting so lovingly earlier. “Oh, no, we missed one!” Beauty says, kneeling down and puckering her lips.

  Mumford yells, “Stop! Don’t go near that cat!” but it is too late. The cat has sprung up, hissing and spitting and adding to the scratches on Beauty’s soft cheeks.

  “Ouch!” she cries out, trying to fend off the cat