Once upon a time, on an island in the middle of the North Sea, there lay a small village on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. This village was called Berk, and it was home to a tribe of Vikings known as the Hairy Hooligans. Among these Vikings lived a humble baker by name of Josef Hofferson. He was a widower with two beautiful daughters. The oldest, Heather, was very lovely, with shiny dark black hair and vivid green eyes that seemed to sparkle in the sunlight. She was the envy of almost every young woman on Berk and the dream of every young man. Josef’s younger daughter was named Astrid, and though different in appearance from her sister, she equaled her in beauty: she had hair the color of sunshine and eyes as blue as the waters stretching out toward the horizon. The sisters were the best of friends, and together the family lived in happiness for many years.
There came a day that, when Heather was twenty and Astrid eighteen, Josef decided to leave Berk for a couple of weeks in order to visit his brother, who lived with a neighboring tribe. Before he departed, he asked Heather, “Would you like for me to bring back a new dress for you, my dear?”
“Oh yes, Papa,” Heather replied, for she loved wearing beautiful clothes that served to enhance her own appearance.
Josef smiled and nodded, and then he turned to his youngest daughter. Knowing she did not share her sister’s liking for fine dresses, he inquired, “And you, Astrid? Would you perhaps like a new axe?”
Astrid thought about this for a moment. Then she smiled and said, “No, Papa. The axe I have is perfect. But I would be so happy if you brought back seeds for a rosebush.”
“A rosebush?” Josef repeated, surprised.
“Yes,” Astrid confirmed, nodding. “I remember the one that used to grow outside our house before Mama died, and I miss looking at those beautiful flowers. If you can find some rosebush seeds for sale, would you bring back some for us, please?”
Josef smiled gently down at his beloved daughter and replied, “Of course I will, my dear.” He then hugged both girls, mounted his Gronckle, Ironheart, and took to the skies.
His visit went well, and he managed to procure both items he had promised his daughters. Heather’s dress was the single most beautiful article of clothing he’d ever seen, and the local florist swore that the seeds he’d purchased would blossom into the most splendid rosebush in the whole Archipelago. And so it was that on the final day of his trip, he packed these items into his saddlebag and then took off into the late afternoon sky.
He was completely unaware of the storm that lay directly in his path…
Lightning flashed and thunder cracked, momentarily blinding and deafening Josef as he and Ironheart struggled through the onslaught of rain and wind. The Viking grunted and raised one hand to shield his face, though it did little good: the droplets hitting his face felt like a thousand wet needles, stinging wherever they struck – his cheeks, his nose, his forehead, his chin…
Ironheart lurched sickeningly as a gust of wind threatened to throw them from the sky entirely. Josef gasped and tightened his legs on the Gronckle’s sides, but in doing so, he jostled his saddlebag. Already worked loose from the force of the weather beating down on it, the cords that held it in place fell away, and the bag plunged into the darkness. “No!” Josef yelped, reaching wildly for it, but it was too late: the bag was gone, lost to the churning sea. “No,” he said again, softer, feeling guilt wash over him. There went his gifts for his dear daughters, Heather’s beautiful dress and Astrid’s rose seeds, all gone forever.
Another bolt of lightning split the sky, coming perilously close to striking him and his dragon. He cried out in terror and decided that he ought to be more concerned for his life. The dress and seeds could be replaced. He, however, could not.
“Come on, boy,” he said to Ironheart. “We need to get out of this soon!”
The Gronckle rumbled in agreement and flapped his hummingbird-like wings as hard as he could. But he was a hefty dragon: his body wasn’t designed for flying in this kind of weather. He was tiring out rapidly. If they didn’t reach Berk soon, or at the very least find a place to rest and get out of the storm, then they would inevitably follow the lost saddlebag and never be heard from again.
And then, just when Josef feared all was lost, a shape appeared up ahead, a patch of black that was somehow darker than the surrounding darkness. It was an island. It wasn’t Berk, but at the moment Josef didn’t much care. He directed his exhausted dragon to land on its shores, and Ironheart collapsed the moment his feet met the ground.
Josef slid down from the saddle and patted his faithful Gronckle on the shoulder. “Good job, boy. Thank you.”
Ironheart huffed quietly in reply, fighting to keep his eyes open.
Another flash of lightning lit up the stormy night, and Josef inhaled sharply, for the momentary brightness had illuminated the irregular outline of a large structure a couple hundred feet inland, a building of some kind, it seemed. “Look,” he said, pointing. “Do you see it, Ironheart? It looks like a house, or maybe a mead hall. Perhaps we can ask the resident or owner if we may spend the night there.”
The tired dragon loyally got to his feet and followed his master up to the dwelling, which, upon closer inspection, proved not to be a house or even a mead hall. It was a castle, a great, looming castle that stretched up into the sky, its turrets and towers like many fingers pointing tauntingly at the gods. It windows were all dark, and the whole structure had a general aura of coldness, but Josef was soaked to the bone and decided that even a cold castle was better than spending the night out in the open. So he reached up and pounded his fist on the gigantic oak door.
It swung inward at once with a low creak. Josef squinted, peering intently at the blackness that lay inside. “Hello?” he called. “Is there anyone there?”
No one answered.
Josef hesitated before stepping gingerly over the threshold and into the castle’s entry hall. To his surprise, it wasn’t as cold as he’d expected: the room was pleasantly warm, and he sighed a little in relief before cupping a hand to his mouth and saying loudly, “Hello? Anybody home? Can anyone hear me?”
Josef walked further into the hall, and Ironheart followed. The door swung shut of its own accord, making them both jump when it closed with a bang. “H-hello?” Josef tried again. “I’m sorry to barge in like this, but the door opened so I thought that maybe it was okay…? It’s a terrible night, and I was hoping that I could spend the night here and be on my way in the morning. I promise I wouldn’t be a nuisance.”
He was answered only by silence.
“How strange,” he murmured as he walked further into the castle, his eyes scanning the dark walls. Sconces with flickering candles provided a dim light, illuminating his way down the corridor toward a pair of doors at the end of the hall. Beyond these was a dining hall, complete with a table filled to overflowing with food. Josef breathed a sigh of amazement and hunger as he stared at all the offerings: there was mutton, boar meat, yak steaks, baked fish, and roasted chicken, heaping platters of every vegetable imaginable, bowls filled with teetering piles of fruit, and flagons of water, mead, and ale.
“Wow,” Josef breathed as the smells of the feast invaded his nostrils. His stomach rumbled loudly in complaint. He looked around the room, but it was empty except for him and his dragon, who was also sniffing curiously at the offerings on the table. “Uh…are you expecting someone?” the weary, hungry Viking called to the vast chamber. “Or is all this food for you…whoever you might be?”
He wasn’t really surprised when he got no answer. Shrugging, he walked up to the table, and he noticed a piece of parchment placed on top of an empty platter. Picking it up, he read:
"This feast has been prepared for you. In the corner of the hall you will find a basket of fish for your dragon. When you are finished, you will find a bedchamber ready for you upstairs. Follow the lit candles: they will show you the way. Eat and rest well, my friend."
There was no signature.
“Well, well,” Josef murmured, and then he looked up. “Thank you!” he called, hoping that his mysterious benefactor could hear him. “Thank you so much for your kindness!” He reached out and filled a glass with mead. Raising the cup, he added, “I drink to your health!” and drained the liquid. It was sweet and wonderful. Sighing happily, he sat down at the table and began to eat.
An hour later, his hunger satiated by the glorious meal, he stood up and yawned. Turning, he saw an open door with candles lining the hall beyond. Remembering the instructions on the note, he headed in that direction, Ironheart plodding sleepily along behind him. He headed up a staircase and down a short corridor before turning into a lavish bedchamber the likes of which he’d never seen before. He sighed happily and fell onto the soft, luxurious bed without even bothering to remove his clothes. He just managed to mumble, “Thank you,” again before he fell fast asleep.
The next morning, he awoke feeling quite refreshed. Sunlight streamed through the window, illuminating the massive bedchamber and filling it with a soft golden glow. Smiling, he sat up and stretched his muscles. “Come on, Ironheart,” he said, standing up and shaking the Gronckle awake. “We need to be going. Heather and Astrid will be worried.”
They found another meal waiting for them in the dining hall, and they both ate quite well. And all the while Josef continued to express his gratitude toward the person or creature responsible for all this. He was baffled by these strange occurrences, but he thought it best not to question them. Perhaps this was the work of a benevolent fairy or enchantress. At any rate, he was clearly in no danger, and he was actually a little sorry to leave the castle and emerge into the clear, sunlit morning.
He inhaled deeply before moving to mount his dragon. But he paused as his eyes fell on a rosebush at the base of the castle steps. He immediately thought of Astrid, of how she’d so wanted to have a rosebush outside their house, and he felt a little guilty that he’d failed to give her what she desired. Then he smiled. It was a small gesture, but perhaps she would like a single rose from this plant. Surely she would understand and appreciate it all the same.
He hurried down the stairs and quickly selected the largest, most beautiful bloom on the bush. Reaching out, he carefully bent the stem until it snapped cleanly between his fingers.
All at once there was a terrible roar, and Josef whirled around, his heart leaping into his throat. What he saw made him go pale with terror.
There was a creature standing at the top of the steps, a creature unlike anything Josef had ever seen or even heard of. It had the general shape of a man, but no man had ever looked this awful, this horrifying. There were black scales covering most of his body, leaving only a small portion of his face bare. He had auburn hair, but there were big black ear flaps protruding from his skull. His hands were ugly and gnarled and ended in five lethally sharp talons, and his feet were giant reptilian paws. From his back sprouted two great leathery wings that were, at the moment, spread threateningly to the side, making the creature seem much larger than he really was and twice as intimidating. But it was the face of the creature that scared Josef most of all: it was a human face in shape, but the mouth was full of razor sharp teeth that looked like they could tear a man limb from limb effortlessly. And his eyes…his eyes were a livid, luminous green with the thinnest of black slits for pupils.
The thing advanced on Josef and screeched, “How dare you?! How dare you steal one of my roses?! After I let you come into my home, eat my food, and sleep in my bed, you repay my kindness with treachery! You offer your thanks by stealing what is most precious to me in the whole world!”
“I-I’m sorry!” Josef stammered, falling to his knees in fright. Behind him, even Ironheart was quailing. “I-I didn’t know…I didn’t mean to…I just…it was so beautiful, I thought…”
The creature roared and took a few more steps toward him. “You thought you would just take a rose and I wouldn’t mind?! You thought I would be pleased with you stealing what I treasure most?!”
“P-please, sir—” Josef began, but he was cut off by a shriek that chilled him to his very core.
“Do not call me ‘sir’!” the creature screeched, and in that moment he sounded every bit the murderous dragon he appeared to be. “Call me by what I am! I am the Beast and you shall address me as such!”
“F-forgive me, B-Beast,” Josef cried, averting his eyes from the horrifying sight before him. “I just…it was such a little thing, I didn’t even consider it. I-I mean, it’s just a rose…”
“To you it is just a rose!” the Beast roared. “But to me it is so much more! It is a symbol of all that is good and beautiful in this ugly, rotten world, a small scrap, a last vestige of purity and light in a land shrouded in darkness and decay! That is why I treasure my roses, you thief! And it is why you shall die for trying to take them away from me!”
Josef’s blood ran cold. “No!” he cried, throwing his hands up in supplication. “Please, Beast, have mercy! I did not know! Had I known I would never have taken it! My daughter so wanted a rosebush that I thought she would love it, but I never meant to hurt the one who had been so kind to me! Please, Beast, I beg of you, have mercy on me!”
For the first time, the Beast paused and considered. His wings lowered slightly as he pondered the baker’s words. Josef held his breath and waited, hoping and praying he would be spared.
Then the Beast said, “You have a daughter?”
“Yes,” Josef said cautiously.
“Is she an only child?” the Beast inquired.
Feeling it was best not to lie to such a fearsome creature, Josef answered, “No, she has an older sister.”
“What are their names?”
“Heather is the eldest, and the youngest is named Astrid.”
Something in the Beast’s eyes seemed to flash for a moment. “And it is the youngest that you intended to give the rose to?”
“Yes,” Josef replied uneasily, nodding.
There was another pause. And then the Beast said, “Very well. I shall offer you a choice. Go home to Berk. It is a two hour flight in that direction.” He pointed the way with one wing. “Tell your daughters what has happened here. In exactly three days, you will return to this castle, either alone or with your youngest daughter, Astrid. If you come alone, you shall die by my hand. If you bring her, she will remain here with me in your place.”
Josef blinked and gaped up at the creature. “You…you want me to sacrifice my daughter to you?”
“No harm will come to her if you choose to bring her,” the Beast said. “But it has to be of her own free will. You cannot force her to come in your place. She must be willing, otherwise I will call our bargain off and kill you on the spot. Do not worry,” he added, turning away and walking back up the stairs to the castle doors. “If she chooses to stay here, she will be treated like an heiress. I won’t harm a hair on her head. Now go. And…” He turned to look at Josef again before closing the castle doors. “…don’t forget to take your rose with you, for it has cost you dearly.”
And then the castle doors slammed shut, concealing the Beast from Josef’s view.
Two hours later, Josef landed Ironheart in front of his door. At once Heather and Astrid came running, excited to see their father. “Papa!” they cried happily, but they froze upon seeing the look of shock and despair on his face. “Papa, what is it? What’s wrong?”
They helped him into the house, where Josef presented Astrid with the rose. She took it with trembling fingers, gazing down at the soft red petals for a moment before lifting her eyes once more to her father’s countenance. “Papa…what has happened? I don’t understand.”
And so Josef told his daughters everything, leaving out no detail. When he had finished, Heather looked as though she was on the brink of tears, and Astrid was quite pale. “No!” Heather cried. “No, that isn’t fair! Your life for a single rose?! It cannot be true!”
“I’m afraid it is,” Josef said heavily. “In three days I will return to the castle and let the Beast do what he will. I will make some arrangements for you two. Rest assured, you will be well taken care of after I’m—”
“Wait a moment, Papa,” Astrid interrupted. “Didn’t you say that if I came in your place, he would spare you?”
Josef blinked in surprise. “Well, yes he did, but I would never dream of asking you to do such a thing, Astrid. You are young and have your whole life ahead of you. How could I ask you to throw it away for this monster?”
“To save your life I would do it without a second thought!” Astrid declared. “I do not want you to die, Papa. I cannot lose you.”
“And I cannot bear the thought of you living with that creature,” Josef retorted. “Do you think I want to spend the rest of my life like our chief?”
Astrid did not answer. Stoick the Vast, chief of Berk, was a widower too, and he had lost his only son Hiccup mysteriously ten years before. No one knew what had become of the boy. He had gone flying on that Night Fury of his, Toothless, and never been seen again. He was presumed dead, but Stoick still would turn his head to the skies, as if hoping his wayward son would return to him at last. It was a truly pathetic thing to behold.
Stoick wasn’t the only one affected by Hiccup’s disappearance. He and Astrid had been close friends, doing almost everything together. It was by mere chance she hadn’t been by his side that fateful day, and she had cursed herself unceasingly since then for failing her friend when he needed her most. But time had passed, and now she had all but forgotten what the boy even looked like. She’d only been eight at the time, the same age as he. Her memories had faded over the intervening years until there was no more than a vague shape where a boy had once stood.
“What if you just don’t go back?” Heather asked, breaking Astrid out of her morbid thoughts. “Maybe he’ll just leave us all alone.”
“No, my dear,” Josef sighed. “He knew I was from Berk. I don’t know how he knew it, but he knows where we live. If I don’t return, I have no doubt he will come looking for us. And when he discovers us, his rage will be terrible…” He shuddered at the very thought of it. “No. I will go back and accept my fate. That is that.”
“And I will go with you,” Astrid said, nodding resolutely. And when her father showed every sign of being about to refuse her, she went on, “Papa, the Beast has promised no harm will come to me if I go. Isn’t that what you said? So I have nothing to fear from him. Besides,” she added with a shrug, “I’ll be sure to bring my axe along, just in case. If he tries anything, he will sorely regret it.”
“You could always take your axe to him while he sleeps,” Heather suggested. “Kill him, and then return to us.”
A heavy silence followed this statement. At length Astrid replied, “If I feel it is necessary, then yes. I will kill him. But not in cold blood. He is the beast here, not me.”
Naturally Josef protested further, but in the end Astrid won, and three days later she accompanied him back to the castle on the island. She couldn’t help but gasp at the sight of the magnificent structure, and even Josef was a little dazed by it. It looked much more splendid in the daylight.
“Well,” he said a little unnecessarily. “Here we are.”
Astrid nodded and slid down from Ironheart’s back, shouldering her bag and clutching her axe tightly in her hand. Despite her brave words of three days prior, her knees were shaking with fear. But she couldn’t let her doubt herself. She had to do this. It was the right and noble thing to do. Her father would live because of her bravery. Her sacrifice would grant him life. She had to remember that.
They headed up the steps and Josef knocked on the great front doors, which swung open at once.
The Beast was waiting for them just inside.
“You have come,” he observed, his voice impassive. He gazed at Astrid, whose eyes were wide with terror that she couldn’t hide at the sight of him. Josef’s description of him hadn’t done him justice. She was suddenly certain this visage would haunt her nightmares for the rest of her life. For a moment no one spoke.
Then the Beast asked Astrid, “You have come of your own free will?”
Astrid managed a weak nod.
The Beast inclined his head to her and said, “I am very grateful to you, Astrid. Come in, please. I will show you to your room.”
Astrid and Josef followed the Beast as he led them into the castle, heading up the stairs to the very room the baker had taken residence in that stormy night. It now had a sign on the door that read “Astrid’s Room” in beautiful swirling letters.
“I trust you will find this room comfortable,” the Beast said. “Should you want for anything, you need only ask.” He then turned to Josef. “I will give you fifteen minutes to say your good-byes. Then I want you to leave this island and never return.”
Josef’s throat tightened, but he managed a stiff nod.
“There is no need to be rude to my father,” Astrid said coldly.
The Beast looked at her with raised eyebrows. He didn’t seem put off by her words in the slightest. He inclined his head to her and said, “I beg your forgiveness, Astrid.” Then he bowed himself out of the room. The door swung shut behind him.
“Oh Astrid!” Josef cried the moment they were alone. “Please, please reconsider! Let me face the Beast and die! I would rather die a thousand times than think of you kept prisoner here with him!”
“It’s a very lavish prison, you must admit,” Astrid remarked, trying to keep the mood light. She looked around the room and its plush furnishings. “I’ve never seen anything so regal in my life.” When Josef didn’t crack a smile, she went on, “Papa, this is what must be done. I will be okay here, I promise.”
Lost for words, Josef pulled her into a tight embrace. She could feel his tears dripping into her hair and held him close, hoping he couldn’t feel her trembling.
Their fifteen minutes were up far too soon for their liking. The bedroom door opened, though no one was on the other side, and Josef knew it was time for him to leave. “Good-bye, my dear daughter,” he said, his voice shaking. “I love you.”
“I love you too, Papa,” Astrid replied, knowing that she was crying and unable to stop herself.
Then Josef walked away and was gone. Astrid watched him go, moving over to her window to see the shape of her father and his dragon winging their way back to Berk. She gazed after him long after he had disappeared into the midmorning sky.
She heard footsteps and turned to see the Beast standing in the doorway. He did not enter the room, as though it had been forbidden to him, and she was rather surprised to see that he looked slightly uncomfortable, as if he didn’t quite know what to do. Also, Astrid noticed, his eyes were somehow different: the pupils were dilated, no longer angry slits. It made him just slightly more tolerable to look at.
“Astrid,” he said after a full minute had passed. “It is a lovely name. It means ‘divine beauty,’ am I correct?”
Astrid nodded mutely.
“It suits you,” the Beast said with a small smile. The expression did nothing to soften the hideousness of his face.
Astrid looked away from him, and then she forced herself to return her eyes to him, to stare him down. She would not show her fear to this creature. “So,” she said with an angry huff. “What do you plan to do with me, Master Beast, now that I am your slave?”
The Beast flinched as if physically struck. “You are not my slave, Astrid,” he said. “And please do not call me ‘Master.’ There is no master here but you. You are the mistress of this castle and those who dwell within it. Whatever you want you shall receive. You need only ask for it. This castle is your home now, and I will do whatever I can in order to make your stay here as pleasant as possible.”
Astrid replied at once, “I wish to see my father.”
The Beast didn’t seem surprised by this. He gestured toward the large, gold-framed mirror that sat on the vanity in the corner and said, “Look upon him, if you wish.”
Confused, Astrid looked at the mirror and quickly stifled a gasp. In the glass she could see an image of her father, flying toward home on his faithful Gronckle’s back. He was weeping openly, tears of grief streaming down his cheeks.
“If there is anything you wish to see in the entire world, merely ask the mirror, and it shall reveal it to you,” the Beast informed her.
This information lodged itself in Astrid’s brain, but for now she merely scowled at him. “You made him cry,” she accused him. “I have never seen my father cry before, except when my mother died. He is a strong Viking. He doesn’t cry. You have reduced him to this.”
To her amazement, the Beast actually seemed to feel guilty about this. “I know, and I am sorry. I can see that his pain is yours as well, and the last thing I want to do is hurt you, Astrid.”
Astrid didn’t know how to react to this. This creature was so…so polite, so kind, a far cry from the murderous monster her father had told her about.
“I am glad you have come,” the Beast confessed after a moment. “I can see that you are a loving, kind-hearted girl. I have been lonely in this castle. It will be nice to have a companion.” He bowed his head to her. “If you do not wish to see me, you need just say so, and I will leave you be. However, I do ask that you dine with me tonight and every night at sundown. The dining hall is just down the stairs, first door on the left. I trust you will find it.” He hesitated and then added, “If at any point you wish to see me, just say my name. I will hear it and come to you at once.”
Then he left her to her bewildered and troubled thoughts.
She passed the day unpacking her bag and examining her bedchamber. There was a closet filled to bursting with all manner of dresses and gowns that she swore she would never wear under any circumstances. On the vanity was a large wooden box heavy with gold and silver jewelry embedded with every colored stone imaginable. A fire crackled merrily in the fireplace, warming the room and illuminating it with a soft golden light. It was a nice room, she couldn’t deny it, filled with warmth and comfort. Yet she found she didn’t quite like it, and she knew she would never really feel at home here.
Three times she asked the enchanted mirror to show her Josef. She watched as he returned to Berk and fell sobbing into Heather’s arms, and her heart broke for him each time. She couldn’t bear to watch, yet she found she couldn’t tear her eyes away.
At sunset, she went down to the dining hall as requested. A large, delicious-looking meal had been prepared, loading down the table so much that it seemed to bow slightly under all the weight. The Beast was not there, so Astrid sat tentatively in one of the chairs, unsure of whether or not she ought to wait for him to arrive before eating. In spite of everything that had happened, she was ravenous with hunger.
She didn’t have to consider for long, for the Beast arrived only a minute or two after her. “Good evening,” he said, sounding genuinely pleased to see her there. “I hope you are comfortable in your room?”
“Yes,” Astrid replied faintly. “Quite comfortable, thank you.”
Why am I thanking him? she asked herself. This monster has forced me from my home! I shouldn’t be thanking him for anything!
The Beast nodded. “I am glad to hear it.” Then his green eyes widened as they fell on the axe Astrid had decided to carry with her to dinner. “You have brought your weapon,” he observed without inflection.
Astrid felt her face go pink and felt rather foolish, but she nodded and said evenly, “Yes, I did. Just to be safe.”
The Beast smiled in amusement. “I promise you, you’ll have no need of it in this place. I wouldn’t so much as touch a hair on your head without your explicit permission to do so. I am no danger to you. And at any rate,” he added with a soft, rumbling laugh, “weapons cannot harm me.”
Astrid blinked. “Really?”
“Yes,” the Beast replied. “It is part of the curse I am under. I cannot be harmed by any physical means. Believe me…” His smile slipped for a moment. “I have tried.”
Astrid frowned in disbelief. Seeing her expression, the Beast spread his arms out. “By all means, if you wish to see for yourself, take a swing at me.”
Astrid’s eyes widened. Did he seriously just invite her to attack him? Was he mad as well as hideous?
“It’s all right,” the Beast went on, correctly reading the look of shock on her face. “It won’t hurt a bit, I promise.”
Astrid hesitated. Then she stood up and, with deadly accuracy, hurled her axe across the room. Its path was sure: it was aimed directly at the Beast’s chest. If it connected, it would kill him at once.
But it didn’t. When it was a mere inch away from his body, it suddenly and inexplicably veered off in another direction, landing with a clang and a clatter on the stone floor. Astrid gaped at her fallen weapon as, chuckling, the Beast went to retrieve it. Handing it back over to its owner, he said, “See? Not even a scratch.”
Astrid took her axe and propped it against her chair with hands that were shaking slightly. “That’s…that’s something,” she remarked after a moment.
“Indeed,” the Beast agreed. Then he stepped back and went on, “Please, eat and drink to your heart’s content. I wasn’t sure what you’d like so I had a little bit of everything prepared. In future I hope to learn of your likes and dislikes and have meals made accordingly.”
“Did you make all of this?” Astrid asked as she started to fill her plate. Somehow she had a hard time imagining this fearsome creature working in a kitchen.
The Beast shook his head with a faint laugh. “No. I’m afraid I’m a terrible cook.”
“Then who made it?” Astrid said curiously. “In my time here I have yet to see a single servant.”
“There are no servants here,” the Beast answered. “No one lives here except you and I. The castle is…enchanted. It has been for as long as I have lived here.”
Astrid nodded as if she understood, though in truth his words made no sense to her whatsoever. “So you haven’t always been like this?” she asked, taking her first bite. The chicken was moist and hot and wonderful on her tongue.
“No,” the Beast replied, a hint of sadness creeping into his voice. “I was once human, but…” He broke off suddenly, looking distinctly uncomfortable. “Forgive me. There are some things I am not permitted to speak of. It is the nature of this curse. Whenever I wish to talk about it, I am forced into silence.”
Astrid didn’t know what to say to this, so she made no reply. Instead, noticing that he had not filled a plate of his own, she asked, “Are you not going to eat too?”
The Beast shook his head. “No. I will dine later. I’m afraid my bestial nature makes food for humans intolerable to me.”
“Oh.” Astrid felt a little ill at ease with this. Exactly what did this creature eat?
As if reading her thoughts, the Beast went on, “I will have some fish at a later time. I’m afraid my table manners are rather lacking, and I do not wish to disgust you.” He cracked a small smile, revealing his sharp teeth. “I have never tasted human flesh and have absolutely no desire to do so, if that is what concerns you.”
Astrid flushed. “Forgive me,” she mumbled. “This is all so new and difficult to process.”
“It will get easier with time,” he assured her.
She rather doubted this, but did not protest.
“Tell me about Berk,” the Beast said after a moment’s silence. “What is it like?”
And so Astrid told him everything she could about her home on the island: how she and her father and sister would make bread every morning, how she loved to go flying on dragonback, how they would go on fishing trips and laugh when their nets came up with great tears in them. She told him about the festivals and celebrations, of a wedding that had taken place a month before, of the dragon races held every so often. The Beast listened attentively to every word, never interrupting, his attention focused solely on her.
“It sounds wonderful,” he said quietly as she took a deep gulp of water. All that talking had dried out her throat. “It must be nice, to live among normal people, people who don’t flee in terror when they see you.”
Astrid didn’t quite know how to reply.
“Tell me,” the Beast went on. “Do you find me ugly, Astrid? Does the sight of me fill you with horror and revulsion?”
She hesitated. Then she said, quite honestly, “I am not as frightened as I was when I first saw you. I think I am starting to get a glimpse of the man behind the monster.”
“Really?” He breathed the word so quietly that she almost didn’t hear him. He leaned forward in his chair and asked, “Yet I am still a beast to you, am I not? You see me and cannot look upon my face for long. You feel you must gaze anywhere else, am I correct?”
He didn’t sound angry, just resigned, as if he expected nothing less and had come to terms with it. So he seemed surprised when she replied, “It is getting easier to look at you now. Like I said, I no longer fear you. As for your appearance, well…” She shrugged uncomfortably. “With time, I suppose I’ll get used to it. Besides,” she added quickly, “beauty is only skin deep. I know some men who are quite handsome, but underneath that they are as shallow and selfish as can be. You seem to be the exact opposite: ugly on the outside, but inside…” She trailed off uncertainly. She’d barely known him a day. How in Thor’s name was she supposed to know what he was really like on the inside? Sure, she’d seen evidence of a good heart, but she couldn’t forget that he’d threatened to kill her father. Clearly the monster within was present, even if it was subdued for now.
The Beast gazed at her, his green eyes sharp and calculating. Then he murmured, “Thank you, Astrid. You are very kind.”
There was a pause. And then:
“Astrid…will you marry me?”
Astrid choked on her sip of water and coughed violently. The Beast’s face, the only patch of human skin visible on his form, went pink in embarrassment but he said nothing, waiting for her to recover enough to answer.
“Wh-what?” she finally managed to splutter. “Marry you?! I…no, Beast. No, I won’t.”
She bit her tongue, suddenly wondering if she had perhaps said the wrong thing, if refusing him would awaken that animal rage her father had witnessed. She feared she wasn’t as safe as he’d promised.
But the Beast did not become angry. He merely nodded sadly. “I understand,” he said quietly, though he sounded distinctly disappointed. “I suppose I should have known. I just…thought I’d ask anyway…”
He stood up, and Astrid unconsciously held her breath. “If it pleases you, I will retire for the night. Please feel free to linger here as long as you wish.” He turned to go, and then he stopped at the door and looked back at her. “You are welcome to explore the castle as much as you want. No room or hall is off-limits to you. Should you get lost – and you may, for this place is quite large and bewildering to traverse at times – merely say aloud, ‘I wish to return to my room.’ Then turn around, and you shall find yourself outside your bedchamber door.” He bowed to her. “Good night, Astrid. I hope you sleep comfortably.”
And then he left, leaving Astrid alone to contemplate what had just happened.
He’d asked her to marry him. For Thor’s sake, the Beast had asked her to marry him! Why…how did he…did he really expect her to say yes?! Never mind the fact she’d just met him that day, but he was…well, a beast! Some kind of half-human, half-dragon creature. Did he really expect such a relationship could ever work? Why in Odin’s name had he even asked?!
She shook herself and took a deep breath. She had to relax, to get a grip on herself. So he’d startled her with a surprising and perhaps inappropriate question. It was no reason to act as if the world was coming to an end. He’d accepted her refusal with good grace, and she seemed to be totally safe around him, so there was likely nothing to be afraid of. She should just put the matter behind her and finish her meal. Then she figured she’d retire. It had, after all, been a long and emotionally trying day.
So once her hunger was satisfied, she made her way back up to her bedchamber, pausing outside the door to examine the sign that proclaimed the room as hers. No one goes through this much trouble for a person without a reason, she thought. Why? Why does the Beast want me here? Is it just because he’s lonely? Is that why he asked me to marry him? Is there something else going on under the surface I don’t know about?
She couldn’t answer any of these questions, so she sighed and slipped into the room, closing the door behind her. Then, after a moment’s thought, she locked the door. Just in case.
After waking up the next morning feeling well-rested and rejuvenated, Astrid spent the next day exploring her new home. The Beast had not been lying when he’d said that it was a large and bewildering dwelling to make one’s way through, for numerous times she found that she had quite lost her way. She tried committing paths and doors and corridors to memory, but the task was impossible with so many passages, halls, and rooms to remember. She never feared, though, for upon trying the Beast’s suggestion to return to her room, she discovered that she was never more than a turnaround from her own bedchamber.
She did not see the Beast throughout the course of the day, a fact which did not totally surprise her. After all, he had said that, should she not wish for his presence, he would leave her be. Yet with all her wanderings, she did find it just a little strange that she didn’t at least stumble on him in some room or other. Vaguely she wondered what he did all day long, where he hid himself within the walls of his castle.
She asked him this when she met him for dinner that night. He seemed surprised by the question, as though he was touched she would think of him. “I was never far away,” he replied. “Should you have wished to see me, all you’d have needed to do is call, and I’d have been by your side in an instant. However, as I wasn’t sure you wanted me around, I made every effort to stay out of your path.” When this answer didn’t seem to satisfy her, he added, “I spent most of the afternoon in the library on the third floor.”
“Oh,” Astrid replied, nodding. She remembered the room in question: a gigantic place filled from floor to ceiling with overstuffed bookshelves carrying more books than she even knew existed. It also hosted a large number of plush armchairs, so she supposed it entirely possible he had been there and she just hadn’t seen him.
“I hope you are growing to like this castle?” the Beast inquired.
“Yes,” Astrid answered, and it was true. “It’s a lovely old building, quite comfortable. Thank you.”
There was a pause.
“Is something bothering you, Astrid?” the Beast asked concernedly.
She flinched inwardly. He was pretty perceptive. “I was just wondering…” She changed her mind. “Nothing. Don’t worry about it.”
“No,” the Beast insisted gently. “If anything troubles you, know that I am here to listen. If there is anything you want from me, just speak it, and I shall see that it is done.”
“It’s more of a question than a desire,” Astrid mumbled.
“Then ask, and I shall answer as best I can,” the Beast amended easily.
Astrid sighed, knowing he wasn’t going to let it go and fearing what he would say. But she forged ahead, “Why did you threaten to kill my father the other day?” As she expected, the Beast flinched at the question, so she hurried on, “It’s just…ever since I came here yesterday you’ve been nothing but kind and courteous, yet you were going to murder my father over a stolen rose. These are two very different personalities, and I’m having a hard time combining the gentle creature who has my comfort as his first priority with the monster that almost killed the dearest person in my life.”
The Beast was quiet for a long time, but it wasn’t an angry or sullen silence. It was thoughtful, contemplative: he was trying to figure out how best to answer. After several minutes, he finally replied, “You may have noticed that I am not fully human. Half of my being is that of a dragon. My human half is the one that has tried to ensure your wellbeing and comfort. It is that side that granted you dominion over the entire castle. It is that side that gave your father food and shelter when he came here in the storm. It is even that side that offered the choice he faced, for my other side – the dragon side – would never have made such an offer. My dragon half can be quite gentle, unless its instincts tell it that it…that I am being wronged in some way. In the case of your father, when I saw that he had stolen a rose, I’m afraid the dragon half became fiercely territorial and would have killed him on the spot had my human side not intervened and offered an exchange.”
“But still,” Astrid said, “it was a rose. It’s not like he tried to steal the fine silver or something like that. It was just one rose.”
The Beast nodded. “Yes, it was one rose. But that single rose represented far more to me than you can possibly imagine. Try to put yourself in my position for a moment: a hideous creature that cannot expose himself to others without inspiring fear and disgust. You have to live your life cooped up in one place, never venturing outside for longer than a few hours each day, never encountering another human being, living a life that is void of all things beautiful and good. Then you have this one thing, a rosebush. It’s not much, but it is lovely, by far the loveliest thing on this entire island. And then some stranger comes along and, after you’ve been so kind to him, he tries to steal a rose, to take away, damage that one shred of beauty left in your world. My dragon side couldn’t cope with that, and I’m afraid I snapped. Does it make sense now?”
“I suppose,” Astrid said, though by her tone of voice it was clear she didn’t.
The Beast smiled gently. “Then you’re doing better than I am, because it doesn’t make sense, even to me. Oh, it makes sense to my draconic instincts, but to my human nature, not so much.” His smile faded. “I hope you can forgive me for causing you such pain. I know threatening your father angered you and hurt you, and that is the very last thing I’d ever want to do. Angering you makes me feel like a failure, and hurting you wounds me as well.”
Astrid looked down at her plate, feeling uncomfortable. She cast around for a change of subject and settled for, “Last night you said you were not always this way. That you were once human. Who were you then, and how did you come to be like you are now?”
The Beast winced. “I am not sure how much I can say,” he confessed. “I want to tell you everything, but the curse prevents me from doing so. But I will try to explain as much as I can. My name was…” His mouth froze over the word and refused to form it. He grunted in frustration and tried again. “I was a chief’s son.”
Astrid’s eyes widened. How had a chief’s son been reduced to this? “What tribe did you belong to?”
Again the Beast could not articulate an answer. He could only gaze sadly, imploringly at her. At length he managed to murmur, “Tell me about the place you grew up.”
Astrid’s eyes widened. “Berk?” she asked. “You’re from Berk?”
The Beast could say neither yes nor no, but the light in his bright green eyes was all Astrid needed to confirm her suspicion. “You are!” she cried. “Is that how you knew my father was from Berk? Did you recognize him?”
“Not at first,” the Beast said carefully. “It wasn’t until he said he had two daughters and told me their names that I realized who he was.”
Astrid frowned. “Why did that make you…” She stopped, her jaw dropping as she made a sudden connection. He’d once been the son of a chief, the chief of Berk. The chief of Berk was Stoick, and he had only one son, a son that had gone missing ten years ago, a son that had been her very best friend in the whole world…
“Hiccup?” she breathed. “Hiccup, is it you? Is it really you?”
Of course the Beast couldn’t answer, but his eyes were shining with pure joy. In that moment she knew the truth.
“Oh my gods!” she cried, leaping to her feet and hurrying over to him. He stood as well, just in time to catch her in an embrace that nearly knocked him off his feet. “Hiccup! It’s you, it’s really you! You’ve been here all this time?! What happened?! Who did this to you?! And Toothless! You…you’ve been fused with Toothless, haven’t you?! That’s why you’re half-dragon! Your dragon half is Toothless! It all makes sense now! Oh Hiccup…!” She hugged him tightly, forgetting entirely for a moment that he was a beast, a monster, that he had threatened her father’s life and torn her away from her home.
“I am so glad you figured it out,” said the Beast, his voice shaking slightly. “I was beginning to wonder if you had forgotten me.”
Astrid drew back, looking up into the green eyes she suddenly understood to belong to Toothless. “I’m sorry,” she said sincerely. “I guess I was just so frustrated and confused that I never even considered the possibility it was you.” She ran a hand down his cheek, and he leaned into her touch, his eyes closing in sheer bliss. “Oh Hiccup, who did this to you? Who put you under this spell? And why?”
The Beast sighed sadly. “I cannot say, Astrid. I wish I could.”
“The spell?” she asked. “It’s preventing you from explaining?” When he nodded, she asked, “Is there some way to break the spell?”
The Beast nodded excitedly. “There is. You…” He faltered. “I…” He stopped again and growled irritably and stepped back, away from her. “I don’t understand,” he muttered, though this was more to himself than to Astrid. “You know now…so why…? Unless…” He suddenly stiffened as some terrible thought occurred to him. “No…no, it’s not enough! It’s not enough!” He threw his hands up, his fingers digging into his scalp. “It’s not fair!”
“Hiccup?” Astrid asked, bewildered, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Are you—”
“Do not call me that!” he barked, whirling around to face her. She staggered backward, crying out in fright, for his eyes were burning with rage, his pupils reduced to slits. “I am not that boy anymore, don’t you understand that?! I am the Beast, Astrid! Nothing but a horrible, hideous, murderous beast! Half human, half dragon, cursed to live this way until…” He couldn’t say what came next, so instead he let out a roar that rang in Astrid’s ears, echoing throughout the castle long after the sound had left his mouth.
There was a long silence that followed this. The Beast took great, deep breaths, willing himself to calm down. Astrid stared at him, feeling true terror for the first time since her arrival. She’d finally caught a glimpse of the true monster within him, just a glimpse, but it was enough to scare her witless. And she didn’t scare easily.
After several minutes, the Beast slowly turned to look at her again. His pupils were dilated once more, but they lacked the warmth and excitement they had held such a short time ago and were instead filled with sadness and regret. “Forgive me,” he murmured. Then he inhaled deeply and asked, “Astrid, will you marry me?”
Astrid blinked. This again? How could he ask her that after everything that had just happened? “No, I won’t,” she replied without even pausing to consider.
The Beast looked as though he’d been expecting this answer and nodded solemnly. “I see. I shall leave you to your meal. I hope to see you again tomorrow.” And he left the dining hall without another word.
Astrid turned to look at her abandoned plate and realized she had completely lost her appetite. So she made to walk toward the stairs before stopping, remembering that Hiccup – no, the Beast – had gone that way just a moment before. If she went that way now, she might run into him again, and that was the very last thing she wanted at the moment.
So she said, “I wish to return to my room,” and turned around. She found herself facing her bedchamber door and hurried inside, making sure to lock the door behind her.