He awoke in the morning to the sound of a bird just outside the window. The sunlight streamed in on the merchant and it took several moments for him to compose himself and recall where he was in the unfamiliar surroundings of this room.
When he had finally come to his senses, Dunstan realized that he ought to get up and get out of the castle as quickly as possible. Being discovered trespassing wouldn’t do him well and would not likely get him home any quicker. So grabbing his cloak, he threw it around himself and went to the door to listen for the sounds of activity in the castle.
Yet, he heard nothing. It was odd but subsequently he realized the castle was quite large and perhaps no one was up and about in this particular wing quite yet. He slowly peered out of the door and down the corridor. It was empty and silent. Dustan stole out of the room trying to tread as carefully as he could so as not to make any noise. A sudden creak sent him straight into the room closest to him.
Heart pounding, he realized he should get out of the castle somehow instead of roaming through it. At quick glance, he saw this room was similar to the one he’d slept in –although it also contained a desk and a couple of small shelves. He went around them and straight to the window on the far wall. A fleeting look showed him no one outside. He eased the window open; grateful that it was one designed to be opened and shut. Then sticking his head out for another quick look, he determined it was safe to exit. It took a few moments; Dunstan realizing his old bones weren’t as spry as they once were, but finally he was through and on the grass outside.
He had to take a moment to recall now which direction he’d have to head. It had been a long, arduous night and he’d made his way in the dark mostly that last evening; therefore having the benefit of being able to see where he was going now wasn’t of much help as such.
He soon figured out he had to move to the left-hand side and then somehow make another turn towards the left to gain access to the front of the castle. Yet as easy as the plan seemed, it wasn’t accomplished so. He quickly ran into some hedges and a small smattering of trees after making his first left and in attempting to go around them, he had to go to the right instead and had to continue on in that direction for some time. Then, he came to an opening in a hedge wall. Knowing he had no other option than to take this entryway (or climb over the hedges perpendicular to it on his left), Dunstan set forward.
He was greeted with the sight of a seemingly vast garden laid out to his left-hand side; the direction he’d have to take to leave anyhow. With a smile at such a fortune, he began his wandering through it; admiring the foliage and various flowers scattered amongst the place. It seemed rudimentary in its keeping, however. Dunstan wondered offhand whether the gardener was an amateur or would soon be fired. After all, he was working for a castle and thus an obviously very wealthy proprietor in that. In attempts to head what he now deemed to be northeast (due to the position of the sun above him), Dunstan soon came across a section of rose bushes. Only, he could not tell what they were at first due to the fact that he saw not one rose or bud blooming as he walked along the way. ‘How odd’ he thought to himself when he finally realized the situation.
He kept up his trek going to the east now and was soon rewarded with the appearance of a few roses upon the nearby bushes. Dunstan was suddenly filled with overwhelming emotion and thoughts of home and his beloved daughters but especially his precious Beauty. Somehow seeing these scattering of small flowers blooming despite the thick thorns surrounding them reminded him of his daughter’s adequacy to remain a beautiful young woman inside and out despite their recent changes in circumstance towards unfavorable conditions. So moved was the merchant that he sought to take one of these stunning flowers with him home to her. He knew she would appreciate it whereas her sisters would likely be offended by the rudimentary gift and toss it away idly.
Dunstan chose a flower in amongst the largest group of blooms in hopes that its absence would not be so easily noted. The moment however that he had cut the flower from its stem and set his knife back into its small sheath at his waist upon his belt, he was startled by the sound of a loud, threatening growl.
Stunned, the merchant whipped around in time to see a large creature; a beast of some sort, bound towards him and in fear and surprise Dunstan fell to the ground just as whatever it was reached him. He closed his eyes and prepared for death; knowing not even his knife could save him anyhow. Only he did not feel the pain of the tearing of his flesh or the clawing of his clothing. He only felt the pressure of two large paws upon his arms pinning him down on the damp grass and the hot breath of this beast bearing down upon him.
“Whatever do you think you’re doing!?” the creature spoke angrily.
Terrified, Dunstan could not answer. He managed to open his eyes slowly to stare upon the grizzly face of his attacker feeling absolutely shocked that he had heard a voice and if he was not much mistaken the voice was close enough to him to have come from this beast. But, that was impossible!
The creature’s golden eyes seemed to slit as they moved and saw the rose that Dunstan had dropped in the surprise of it all. Its face immediately moved closer to the merchant’s as a low, angry growl issued from its throat. “YOU HAVE CLIPPED A ROSE?” it snapped; its jaws just inches from Dunstan’s face.
“I—I—I,” he stammered, “I— yes.”
The monster growled in disbelief and anger, though luckily it had turned its head to the side to issue its snarl. “WHY?” it demanded; turning back to its capture, “WHY!?”
Dunstan was so frightened by this talking beast that he could not answer. He stared wide-eyed and trembling up at the tan coloured creature atop him.
Seeing the man was making no effort to reply, the beast moved his own face closer to Dunstan’s and spoke again, “You sought to take from me what I treasure most and now I shall ask you what it is that you treasure most in this world? You do not have much time to answer me sir so make your words come swift and do not lie to me for it will not help you!” he threatened.
“M-my-my daughter,” Dunstan stammered; terrified. He hadn’t even thought to lie; to protect the truth and protect thus his family. Once the words were uttered, he wished he could take them back.
The Beast withdrew his close proximity a little and fixed Dunstan with an intense stare. “Not even your own life, sir?” he muttered in a low growl.
“Y-yes,” Dunstan answered, “M-my life. You are correct! It is my life.”
“No,” the creature replied, “You told me your daughter. When I asked, you told me your daughter was the most treasured thing to you. Which is the lie?”
“The first answer, my...my liege,” he uttered; attempting some flattery with a title. “I stated the first thing that came to mind in my terror but I...I do treasure my own life above all.”
There was a shift in the expression of Dunstan’s accuser and though his paws remained where they were, the creature sat a little more upright. It was here that Dunstan finally realized that this beast was indeed wearing clothing; a doublet of a deep colour and elaborate stitching comprised mostly of what appeared to be a soft, velvety material. Rather than try to take in the details of all of this, the merchant’s eyes were drawn back instead to the creature’s face –particularly the eyes so as he might perhaps catch a glimpse of what this beast was thinking to do next. If he was about to be mauled, he’d like to know.
The eyes of this animal seemed neither completely human nor beast. The shape seemed right for almost any man’s but the colouring was wrong: no man Dunstan had ever known of had eyes the colour of golden wheat.
The rest of the face reminded Dunstan of an animal he’d seen on a few of his trading expeditions which essentially was a very large cat.
This beast was a large, tan coloured creature which slightly resembled in its face a large foreign animal and had a man’s eyes unnaturally coloured. And it could speak. Altogether it was unnerving.
“The first thing that came to mind in your terror was the truth. I shan’t be lied to now. So tell me then why you changed your answer so quickly?” The Beast asked Dunstan –the lingering of a threat still in his now even tone of voice.
It would not do well to lie to this beast again. Dustan opted for the truth: “I... I reconsidered. I do not wish to endanger my family on account of my own foolish actions,” he declared.
“It is a little late for that now,” The Beast muttered more-so to himself. “You have declared what it is that you value most in this world. Therefore I believe it is only fair to abide by some terms of conduct. Since you have attempted to take from me that which I treasure most I shall therefore have what you treasure most,” he announced.
“Wh-what?” Dunstan whispered fearfully.
“Your daughter for my rose,” The Beast stated plainly.
“No,” Dunstan blurted immediately causing his captor to stare him down with narrowed eyes.
“No?” he repeated.
“Sir, I beg of you I—I didn’t mean any harm in attempting to take a rose and I... My daughter should not suffer for my misgivings and shortcomings. You cannot demand such a high price, beg your pardon, for such a small offense! Please I shall work out ano—”
“You dare attempt to tell me what expanse your offense is to myself?” the creature growled; leaning in a little again. “You dare to say that taking a rose; that which I hold most dear to me, is little in comparison to that which you treasure most?”
“I...I did not mean to offend but surely the life of an innocent girl does not equal payment for one small rosebud.”
“Then would you deem your life forfeit as payment?”
“Y-yes,” Dunstan admitted slowly.
“Forgive me if I do not see it that way. A treasure for a treasure.”
“I won’t allow you to kill her on account of our— our...” The merchant struggled to find the word.
The Beast barked a short laugh. “Kill her? Although I do suppose the justice would be more complete with that transpiring seeing as the rose you have cut shall wither and die. However, I did not have such a thing in mind.”
Dunstan stared up at this creature who with every passing moment seemed to reveal himself to be very intelligent and sensible. And although it was still a hard reality to come to terms with, the fact that this beast could even speak in the first place seemed pale in comparison to his straightforwardness and intelligence.
“Seeing as one day this rose which you have cut shall be re-grown upon this bush, I am willing to therefore only hold your treasure; your daughter, for a set period of time also. In fact, I do not see why it cannot be that until this rose is replaced, your daughter does not live with you but remains here. And because you sought to take my rose without permission, I shall make our terms that she shall stay here until the bud renews and one other in its place. Until two new blooms grow and open their petals to the world, your daughter shall not leave here. Those shall be the terms.”
“You wish to argue these terms?” The Beast growled.
“I... But my daughter is not with me,” Dunstan declared, “Do you wish that I fetch her and bring her all the way here again? For in that span of time, certainly there shan’t then be much left that she should be detained here.”
“You speak of what you do not know, sir,” The Beast retorted, “These roses which you see here do not bloom regularly nor do they grow easily. Long have I tended these bushes and the results are what you see here before you.”
“Y-you’re the gardener?” Dunstan muttered in surprise.
“I am the keeper of this castle and all its grounds. I am master to this castle.”
Dunstan did not know what to say to this. A creature such as this lording over such an estate? It seemed preposterous!
The Beast could sense what Dunstan was thinking by the mere look of surprise on his face. “Say or think what you will but you will find no other Lord or Master here,” he growled gruffly.
“I—I meant no offense,” Dunstan reassured softly. “I’ve just... I’ve never come across such a... an arrangement... such a household,” he added on a moment later.
“None taken sir if you were meant not to give it,” The Beast replied.
“Now, back to the matter at hand. You will bring your daughter here as swiftly as possible,” he began.
“No argument! You are a gentleman, are you not? You are bound by logical and sound agreement especially when you find yourself in the wrong?”
“I... Yes I suppose you could say such a thing. I am a business man. I am a merchant,” he explained.
“Then when someone slights you, you wish repayment with interest upon occasion? And the opposite? That is all I ask here: repayment for the loss I have suffered. Justice to be had...”
“Wh-what will you do then; when you have her?” the merchant asked softly; hesitantly after several moments of silence.
“That concern is none of yours,” the creature retorted calmly.
“It is my concern! She is my daughter!” Dunstan cried out.
The creature’s face considered. “Should you be a man of your word and bring her here, you shall have mine: your daughter shall simply be detained here; unable to leave this place until the terms of our agreement have come to pass. She will be kept my prisoner.”
“And I suppose you would starve her; treat her like a slave?”
“Though I may look threatening and evil to you, sir, I assure you torture is not within my nature. Now, you will bring her here upon our terms and you will leave her here alone without any other interference or I shall be obliged to go against my nature and do harm. Is that understood?”
Dunstan merely nodded his head as best he could from his position lying against the ground.
“How is it you conclude your business deals?” The Beast asked him.
“Wh– Ehm, well, sometimes we shake hands and sometimes we simply sign our names upon parchment confirming receipt of our transaction...”
“Does one hold more weight than the other?”
This was a considerable question. Dunstan took a moment of thought. “It depends on the man,” he answered finally, “Some men’s circumstances tell them that a handshake is just as binding legally and morally as an order or a contract from the law itself.”
“And which of those men are you?” The Beast asked him pointedly.
“In this instance, I would consider a handshake quite binding,” he admitted softly.
“Then I shall let you up.” With a shift of weight, The Beast was off of Dunstan and on his own feet once more; standing upright like any human gentleman would in boots of a fashion that seemed to be a decade off the current time.
Dunstan slowly rose to his own feet; feeling himself start to tremble ever so slightly.
The creature reached out its paw to him and hesitantly Dunstan raised his own arm to meet it. He was surprised to find that The Beast’s paw was actually less like a cat or dog’s than he’d originally thought; it was actually narrow and seemed to have almost proper fingers that closed around Dunstan’s hand carefully before they shook. It was the claws that alarmed the merchant although they never touched him. “Our contract is sealed,” The Beast stated. “You have a fortnight to bring your daughter back here to me.”
Dunstan found no words with which to reply.
“Do you require longer?” The Beast asked gruffly when he was met with silence.
“N-no. Not unless there is another storm or...” He paused and realized he’d have to go back home on foot unless he could find his horse again in these blasted woods.
“Then the deal is settled. I shall see you to my front gate.” The Beast turned and led the way through the garden with Dunstan following closely behind.
“Where is your horse or caravan, sir?” he was asked once they’d reached the front of the castle again.
“No caravan. And as to my horse, I fear she’s lost somewhere in these woods.”
The eyebrows of the creature drew close together. “I’m afraid I own no such luxury here,” he admitted after a moment of thought. “If I were to supply you with food and a better cloak, would you be fine to walk until such a time that you reach a place to obtain transportation?”
The Beast’s offer would have to do; circumstances being what they were. “Yes, thank you.”
The Beast led Dunstan into the castle and after another hour, the man emerged laden with a rucksack filled with various foods and some drink in addition to better walking boots and a thicker cloak. Further arrangements were made that Dunstan’s old cloak and boots would be returned to him for the journey home after he brought his daughter and that he may keep the new cloak and boots but must return the rucksack with a single, full sack of wine inside it upon his return.
With everything settled, Dunstan set off in the direction he was told to go to make it from the forest by the quickest route.
His heart felt light knowing he’d no longer be lost. But a certain heaviness weighed it down further at the thoughts of the transaction that had occurred enabling him to return home safely. It was bittersweet.