Story no. 39, the penultimate sixth part in my retelling of Beauty and the Beast. If you are just finding my blog now, you probably want to read part one, part two, part three, part four, and part five first.
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FADE FROM BLACK to a grassy hill near shortly before sunrise. The sky is pale blue. The land rises in front of the camera, blocking the long view of the plains. The yellowish plants are tipped with frost. It is still early spring, but the weather is beginning to break.
The SHEPHERD’S MOTHER crosses onto the screen, a lamb under each arm. She looks less feeble than the last time we saw her, when the SHEPHERD showed her the head of the sheep slaughtered by the Beast. It appears that the year of his absence has been a good one for her; her face is fuller and browner, and her gray hair is more neatly braided.
She disappears over the hill. The camera pans to the left, where the SHEPHERD is kneeling next to a small fire, a bundle in his arms.
Cut to the SHEPHERD in profile. Behind him we can see many white lumps huddled in the grass: sheep who have yet risen for the day. The bundle in his arms is another lamb, head poking out of a piece of fabric, probably a torn cloak. He is vigorously toweling off the lamb. It bleats sporadically and indignantly. The BRACELET of brambles around his wrist is visible as he holds the lamb with first one arm, then the other.***
Khirkara was extremely surprised to be again awakened by knocking at his door the next morning.
“He wants you,” the old man snapped. “Bring a book down, he says.”
He struggled into his clothes, his mind tilting precariously. He had thought—he had assumed—what had he assumed? That Atzgar would send him home now? No, they still needed him, now more than ever. The old man couldn’t watch his recovering master all day, and Atzgar could barely drink water by himself.
He had assumed that Atzgar would want nothing to do with him. He was sure he’d disappointed him the night before by not understanding about the book and Chetelur Square and his mother maybe losing her business for some sort of higher good. He still didn’t understand.
It wasn’t as though Atzgar had ever properly explained. He had just made cryptic, provoking statements and assumed that Khirkara would know what he meant.
None of this is my fault, he wanted to yell. None of what is happening right now is even the slightest bit reasonable. There are a thousand things whipping past me so quickly I can barely see them, and I am doing my very best to grab onto what I can, but my best isn’t good enough and there’s no one I can ask for help.
It took him several deep breaths before he was sure he wasn’t going to cry in sheer rage.
Another snag arose when he cast about for a book. The only volume he had in his room was the one about conifers, and he rather suspected Atzgar knew that so well he could have written out a copy. Besides that, it had a great number of illustrations, captions, and sidebars, and if he was to read to the other man it would be very clunky going.
They probably knew he’d spent the whole week in the library, he thought wryly. Khirkara hadn’t seen so much as a glimpse of the old man, not even when he’d gone down last temple day morning to do an abbreviated traveler’s service by himself. But he couldn’t imagine the suspicious geezer not checking on him at all. If he had looked in on him, Khirkara wouldn’t have noticed. His head had been so far into the case-books that a festival parade could have banged its way through the house without him hearing.
With this in mind, he went upstairs to the library. At first a sense of duty led him toward the gardening books. Probably Atzgar would like something more about trees. But he didn’t know any of these authors or titles, and it would be too easy to get stuck until lunchtime trying to sort through and find something agreeable.
A surge of irritation carried him over to the history shelf. He wasn’t being paid to read Atzgar’s mind. He wasn’t being paid at all.
The third epistolary jutted a little ways past the edge of the shelf. This one was much thicker than the other case-books, and he still hadn’t finished reading it. His Hallowed Grace Tamerlin had spent far longer among the Elasim tribes who had once lived on the property of the estate than the other priests. Besides that, the translation had gone odd and sparse midway through. Whoever had worked through the other epistolaries had not quite finished with this one, and most of the remaining rice papers bore notes and questions about esoteric word choices, rather than full translations. He’d lost another few hours on rest-day hunting up Cathdari dictionaries and books of etymology.
It seemed pointedly rude to carry down a book he had every reason to think would bore Atzgar senseless, particularly a book that he might have to stop and translate partway through reading, and even more particularly a valuable copy of a book that he had no real business touching.
Atzgar, he reminded himself, had given him a possibly-dangerous cipher to carry into a certainly-dangerous part of town, without any sort of warning that this was what he was doing. He could stand a bit of boredom and annoyance.
When he knocked on the door in the hallway outside the kitchen, there was no response. Then, after a minute or so, a labored sort of sound came, like a raspy grunt.
The old man must be somewhere else, he thought, letting himself in.
Atzgar looked much the same, though if possible the skin on his free hand looked a bit paler. He barely moved when Khirkara pulled the chair up closer to the bed and sat down.
Worry began to push down his irritation. Khirkara didn’t know anything about surgery (maybe if he’d had the brains to become a doctor his family wouldn’t be in this fix, a voice in his head said snidely), but it didn’t seem like he was recovering very quickly.
“I thought you probably wanted me to read,” he said stiffly. “The old man wasn’t very clear, so I assumed—I hope you weren’t wanting a specific book—”
Atzgar made a magnanimous gesture, his palm open. Khirkara felt a surge of relief and then hated himself for it.
“I’ve brought you a history,” he said, laying the case-book across his knees and gingerly opening it. “It’s—” he searched for the proper word “—local.”
He started to read again at the beginning, reasoning that he’d probably gone over the first part of the book too quickly in his excitement. There was no telling what he’d missed, in his eagerness to find more letters that spoke of the monster in the wood.
His tongue struggled with the archaic verb forms for two letters. It hadn’t seemed quite so ancient when he was reading it to himself, he thought, squinting at the next wavering line of text. Probably he had been amending the antiquated words without him really noticing.
The priest Tamerlin was something else again, Khirkara thought, as he started on the fifth letter. For someone with a presumably limited supply of paper, he certainly included a lot of grumbling notes in the margins and between lines about the dreadful climate and the awful headwoman and her horrible daughter. From this reading he gathered that Tamerlin’s people had been wheat farmers, somewhere near Namar or Eldis in North Cathdar. The priest had had a very low opinion of people who did not eat bread like civilized souls.
Khirkara was grinning at the page when a movement caught at the corner of his eye. Atzgar had reached a hand out toward him, then to the little table where the notebook and the pen sat, though today he didn’t seem quite able to lay his hands on them.
“I’ll get it, just—” He hastily grabbed for the notebook and pressed it into Atzgar’s hands. He seemed to be breathing very heavily through his nose; the bandages around where his nostrils ought to be fluttered rapidly.
After a moment he wrote, Where did you find this book?
“In the library,” Khirkara said, puzzled. “Where else would I have gotten it?”
I didn’t know there were such old books in the house.
That was odd: didn’t Atzgar know what was in his own collection? Khirkara supposed not everyone was interested in reading for its own sake.
“It’s not so old,” he said. “This book isn’t, anyway. It’s a copy of the real thing—of course you’d have to write to Cathdar if you wanted to have it authenticated. Based on the translation,” he said, narrowing his eyes at the paper again and trying to remember when a particular conjugation had fallen out of use. “It was probably done three or four hundred years ago? But the letters were written a thousand years before that.”
Atzgar gurgled softly at that. Do you need glasses?
“Should I go on reading?” Khirkara asked primly, pretending he hadn’t seen that last line.
It’s a pity that you could not have also examined the collection in the other house before it was sold. I have no idea what might have been in it.
“You had another—” Atzgar made a cutting gesture with his hand, and Khirkara stopped speaking. After a moment he leaned forward and whispered fiercely, “You can’t tell me that and then not explain.”
I shouldn’t have mentioned it.
“No, you shouldn’t have,” he said severely. “Do you want me to keep reading or not?”
He only got through another three of the letters, before the old man came bustling through the door with a bowl of broth and another of boiled potatoes on a tray. Atzgar had stopped Khirkara several more times to comment on the priest’s curious turns of phrase and ask questions about what this or that phrase meant.
He was going to run out of pages in his notebook, Khirkara thought, wondering if there was any more paper in the library that he could bring down.
The old man glared at him, as suspicious as ever. He set the tray on the bed and jerked his chin toward the door.
Khirkara rose to his feet and left.
From the translation monograph of Nazar Alibek:
“The method by which the beast’s transformation is achieved is remarkably violent. When the shepherd returns to the forest home of the beast, he finds her chewed corpse on a hill near the tower. The text is somewhat unclear whether she has ‘died of sorrow’ or was killed by an ambiguous set of ‘enemies’ that are bemoaned by the voices in the trees. The shepherd, upon finding the dead beast, grieves for an unspecified period of time.
He then skins and cuts apart the body over the course of two days and two nights. When the ribcage is cracked open, the human form of the beast is revealed to be unconscious but alive inside the ‘bloody carcass.’
Later versions of the story have the voices in the trees or one of the familiars instruct the shepherd to undertake this grisly task in order to free the beast, but in the poem his actions have no internal logic. The reader is forced to look elsewhere for explanation.
One possibility is that the action reflects the pre-missionary tradition of burnt sacrifices of mutton and beef. While current doctrine forbids such food offerings as wasteful (and therefore inimical to the sacred trust of life,) it has been suggested that they were originally outlawed because they were more commonly made to assuage demons and spirits than to honor the Holiest of Holies.
Another option is that the shepherd is following a custom still found in some Wodani holdings, of preserving and wearing the skins of faithful dogs after death from accident or age.”
That afternoon, Khirkara started to work on a line-by-line translation of the rest of the case-book by himself, using the rice paper notes as a guide. He had gone down to do some more reading midway through the afternoon, but the old man met him in the kitchen hallway and sent him away with a savage, silent hand gesture.
Cemberin’s work came off the shelf and stayed open on the floor next to him, as the priest Tamerlin used historical details from North Cathdar that he didn’t recognize and couldn’t date. Late in the evening, he found himself flipping through the catalog, crossly looking for less oblique chronicles.
The old man didn’t come for him the next day, but the day after he again spent the morning reading letters to Atzgar. He got through seven before he was turned out again.
The next day Atzgar was feeling much better, and Khirkara only got through two and a half letters due to his constant interruptions and questions. He was glad he’d spent so much time rereading a copy of an obscure treatise on the economic structures of tribal society by a South Cathdari monk. (It was, he admitted, terribly enjoyable to just talk about what he’d been reading. Atzgar asked questions about the smallest of details, and he had an unusual talent for picking out the lines of the text that Khirkara had himself been deeply curious about.)
The last day of the week he only had the time to get through a single letter, due to a very long digression about when the Elasim started to use carts .
“You’re going to need to write smaller, unless you’ve got a secret stash of notebooks I don’t know about,” he told Atzgar.
I can give you money to buy notebooks when you next go into the city.
Khirkara started back and looked searchingly at the other man’s bandaged face. (The folds in the gauze seemed and more and more expressive the longer he sat with them.)
“I thought you weren’t—” He lowered his voice. “I thought I wasn’t going to take anything more into the city for you?”
I’m not asking you to.
Khirkara started to say something, but Atzgar kept writing. I shouldn’t have asked you to take the first one. In any case, that was the last book. I can’t send any more. He lifted the pen for a moment, then added, You should go rest day next week, I think. The doctor will be back to check my face, and Basim will be beside himself making sure all is arranged.
He read the last lines in the notebook several times over. He felt a little dizzy every time his eyes ran over the words I shouldn’t have asked you. It was almost like an apology.
“Why let me go, then?” he asked finally. “It wouldn’t take much to keep me here.” The words were out of his mouth before he was quite sure of them. Khirkara hoped that he meant the old man’s billhook, rather than Atzgar’s hand on his arm.
You care for your family very much. I would not like you to be unhappy.
Heavy steps and grumbling started to come down the hall. It must be time for the old man—no, that must be who Basim was—to bring in Atzgar’s lunch. (Basim wasn’t a very common name, but it sounded familiar; where had he heard it before?)
“Should I bring you anything else? Besides notebooks?” he asked hurriedly, before the door was flung open.
Please just come back.
The shepherd cut the beast’s skin,
But her skin was like iron.
He sawed at her body,
But her muscles were like stone.
Many times he sharpened his knife
And many times he started again.
On the third afternoon of the next week, Khirkara grew so frustrated with a bizarre sentence construction that he blew out all the lamps, put all the books away, and went for a walk in the gardens. He found, to his shock, that everything was blooming, even the thorniest trees and bushes. One fir in particular had a spiky red flower that, when he broke it off and turned it around in his hand, echoed perfectly a cone he had seen in Atzgar’s conifer book. He squinted up at the tree, but he couldn’t remember what it was called.
At first he picked things only because he was curious, but once they were in his hands, he couldn’t bear to throw away anything. Before long he had two handfuls and was stuffing flowers in the pockets and buttonholes of his coat. Then he snapped off a little green branch from an ancient larch, using it to make a sort of basket that he could rest in one arm.
By the time he came back to the house, flushed, embarrassed, and triumphant, the bouquet had become a towering mess of petals and leaves and needles and even some interesting bark he’d found on the ground. The old man tried to glower him out of the hallway but, brave with delight, Khirkara ignored him, elbowing open Atzgar’s door and presenting him with the great spray of fauna.
“I don’t know what half these things are, but aren’t they lovely?” he demanded.
Atzgar had not been asleep. He had admitted that his face made him so uncomfortable that he rarely slept for more than a few minutes at a time.
He sat up straighter in bed, gurgling with amusement. But his normal soft gurgle continued and got bigger, and he was suddenly truly laughing, a deep laugh that came up from somewhere in his gut.
The old man—Basim—rushed in then and screamed at Khirkara for maybe making Atzgar tear his stitches, but he found he couldn’t be sorry for it.
From the epistolaries of his Hallowed Grace Tamerlin:
“The Reign of His Holiness Meder Y. 19, M. 11 D. 2
The beast has come again, this time taking the headwoman. There was a heavy snow in the middle of last month, unexpected and early. There was great haste and confusion to clear paths from doors and windows, so her disappearance was not noticed at first. It snowed again during that day, and this must have covered the beast’s tracks. She was not missed until nightfall, and her body was not found until the hunters went out early next morning. Her head had been left whole, but the rest was a bloody mess.
All is grief here, and I confess myself sorely discouraged. There is no question but that her daughter will be made headwoman at next holy day, as soon as her mother is buried. She is, as I have conveyed in my last letter, a competent administrator and fierce hunter herself, if not lettered or studied in the ways of holiness. (Yes, if Brother Meluk asks, this is the same woman who beat me with a stick.)
I have asked to help with the funeral and investment services, as I suspect there may be many heathen rituals perpetuated in these times of fear and sorrow.
Atzgar certainly couldn’t make it up the stairs to wake him, so the night before going into the city Khirkara didn’t sleep at all. He hunched over the case-book in the library, reading aloud to himself in a whisper and rubbing his hands together.
Someone, presumably Basim, had left a rumpled piece of butcher’s paper in the kitchen. He had stolen it and cut it into little hand-sized sheets to write notes on.
He found himself writing the same lines again and again, substituting in different words to see which one made the most sense. Sometime after sunset, his fingers had grown so cold that he’d lit the fireplace and thrown in the last two logs from the woodrack. He huddled in Atzgar’s chair, alternately sitting on his hands and holding them out to the modest flames. The thread of the last letter was hard to follow, jumping from religious observances about doves and lambs to notes on the early vegetable harvest to thoughts on the new headwoman’s mediation skills. (Tamerlin had been impressed, but he wished she would ask his opinion more often.)
Earlier that day, he had visited the sickroom after doing his own short observance at the Black King’s shrine. Atzgar had gripped his arm for a minute, but Basim was already there, shooing him back out the door. A piece of paper had fallen from the coverlet to the floor, and Khirkara stooped to absently pick it up.
When he uncrumpled the paper, it was a note in Atzgar’s calligraphic hand.
If you go to the greenhouse for oranges, check the starfish agave. Take as much as you need.
The starfish agave (which he identified with the help of a pocket guide to succulents he brought down from the library) sat on a narrow, waist-high table. Beneath the plant’s ceramic bowl a round, red piece of wood was inlaid into the tabletop. Curiously Khirkara touched the circle, and it gave under his fingertips.
A drawer sprung out from the side of the table. He raised his eyebrows; the construction joints were so tight the piece had seemed like a solid piece of wood. The drawer itself appeared to be empty, and he pushed his hand into it until he felt something soft at the back.
The soft thing was a wallet, folded over on itself. He opened it and felt a little sick. A sheaf of hundred-dinar notes was jammed inside, along with a handful of five-dinar coins. He counted it up mechanically: two thousand, three hundred forty dinar. Three months’ rent for Anasi and his brothers.
Take as much as you need, Atzgar had said. Khirkara was going to buy notebooks. Three dinar for six. Maybe five if he got nice ones. He needed a half-dinar for bus fare—maybe even two, he’d be coming and going—
—he was going to buy something nice for Anasi if it killed him. What would she like? What would she accept from him?
An image floated into his head, of a particular blue box with a silver emblem pressed into the top. It rustled with silver paper when it was opened, each wrapper containing a square of flaky honey cake with layers of chopped pistachios and almonds. The box came from a bakery two streets over from their old house, and the honey-cakes were her favorite. When he had been in primary school, he and his brothers had pooled their pocket money to buy her a box each year for her birthday.
A single box cost thirty dinar, or it had the last time he had been sent to buy one. Shaking slightly, he drew a hundred-dinar note and a single coin from the wallet, folded it again, and pushed it into the back of the drawer. He’d bring back the change. Atzgar had said—
Now, in the library, as he rubbed his palms together and wondered if he could find any forgotten fuel in the empty bedrooms on the second floor, he thought: whose money was in the wallet? Atzgar’s? Basim’s? Someone else’s?
He wished he had a clock, or a phone, or anything to mark the passage of time. He thought it usually took him three-quarters of an hour to work his way through a single letter, but it varied based on the number of unfamiliar words and bizarre grammatical constructions the priest used. Since he’d lit the fire, he’d translated three letters. It was probably around midnight, then.
Khirkara woke suddenly, with no idea how much time had passed. He’d drawn his feet up into the chair and jammed his knees up against his chest, wrapping his arms over the top of the open case-book. His head spun. He’d left the fire burning—he was a moron—but no sparks seemed to have made it past the fire-screen—
Both of the pages the epistolary had been open to were bent. They’d been folded over when he pulled the book close to him in sleep. Khirkara groaned.
Before dressing to go outside, he spent a careful ten minutes pressing the pages back into the proper shape and then stacking a number of heavy volumes on top of the closed case-book, silently cursing himself all the while. Paper was never quite right after it had been creased.
This time, he used the torch as much to illuminate the compass as his path. When he climbed up the embankment to the road, it was still dark, but he wasn’t sure if that was because he hadn’t strayed so much or because he’d accidentally started his journey several hours earlier.In any case, Khirkara had already been walking along the side of the road for a quite a while when the sky went blue and the sun started to come up.
The truck that stopped for him was a small one. The driver was an Indian woman wearing a work coat over her sari and an enormous fur hat.
“Spring onions,” she said, when he looked curiously into the back. He could see several hundred stacked plastic flats through the rear window. “All the restaurants are clamoring for them right now.”
She was only a little older than him and very talkative. Once she had determined that he had studied at university, she interrogated him about the applications process and his sponsors. It eventually came out that her younger sister was hoping to do maths in Caillon. Their village priest, being from a herding family herself, had no idea how one went about getting a university education. Khirkara told her everything he could think of, and she repeated all the names and addresses he told her several times. When they arrived in Vailga, she agreeably left him on the edge of his old neighborhood, a few streets over from where the expensive bakery sold honey cakes.
Khirkara made the trip to the bakery faster than he had gone into and out of Chetelur Square. The thought of someone he knew recognizing him made the bile rise in his throat. Bad enough that he might be seen in this threadbare, mud-splattered coat; what if someone asked him about his studies? What if someone asked about Khirlaion and Khirhebek?
The blue box with the silver emblem now cost forty-five dinar. The bakery assistant gave his shabby appearance a shrewd once-over, but he didn’t question the validity of Khirkara’s hundred-dinar note. Khirkara counted his change twice when he was outside.
The stationery shop by the university was being opened just as he arrived, the box wrapped in brown paper under his arm. They had pulp-paper notebooks, three for a dinar. He bought fifteen of them and three packages of pens for another two. Feeling very extravagant and slightly giddy from lack of sleep, he spent six more dinar on a fountain pen and a bottle of ink. His mother had always used a fountain pen for her accounts; she said the reservoirs were easier to keep thawed.
Khirhebek opened the door at the apartment. He looked very tired, but his face split into a real grin when he saw Khirkara.
“In,” he said. “I’ve got dumplings.”
Khirlaion and Anasi, he told Khirkara as he put water on to boil, were out visiting some of Anasi’s old friends. When Khirkara looked at the cupboards on either side of the stove, he saw that they were newly full of tins and boxes, including some things he had never seen in this apartment: a bottle of dark green olive oil. A tin of drinking chocolate. A large bag of sugar.
Khirhebek saw where he was looking and went a little red. “The drinking chocolate was a gift from Wongsasraz to Khirlaion,” he said. “But I went a little mad when I added up my first week of tips from the tea house.”
“It’s going well, then?” Khirkara said, extremely distracted by the smell of the dumplings that Khirhebek had dumped in the pot. His stomach hurt for properly cooked food.
“Better than I could have expected,” Khirhebek said, with a disbelieving little laugh. “One of her other musicians is loaning me an instrument, but I think I can probably buy it off him in another month or two. I’m glad you came early—I’m working this afternoon and evening—”
He talked about the tea house and which patrons gave the best tips. Khirkara asked if Wongsasraz had said anything about marrying Khirlaion. His brother was fishing dumplings out of the roiling water with a spoon and didn’t answer right away.
“I think there’s been discussions I wasn’t a part of,” he said finally, watching Khirkara shove a whole dumpling in his mouth and then make extravagant faces when it scalded the roof of his mouth. “I’m pretty sure Anasi’s asking around today to see if anyone’s got a nice suit she could buy off them. But what about you?” he asked suddenly and rather sharply.
“What about me?” Khirkara tried to say around the second dumpling. Khirhebek quirked an eyebrow.
“You sound like you’re gargling that chicken,” he said. “What are you doing out at that house?”
“I’m—” Khirkara swallowed hard, struggling for words. “I suppose I’m keeping him company, mostly.”
“The man with the torn-up face,” Khirhebek said.
“Yes.” He wondered if he should stop eating until Khirhebek was done asking him questions, before deciding that he cared more about eating as many dumplings as humanly possible.
“Keeping him company doing what?” Khirhebek asked, and his voice was so harsh that Khirkara realized immediately that he’d gotten entirely the wrong idea.
He started saying it wasn’t like that at all, but a piece of cabbage went down his windpipe. Coughing and gasping overwhelmed whatever words he might have had. Khirhebek pounded him on the back and then got him a glass of water.
“It’s—I’m not—it’s all very—there’s nothing—” he spluttered, rubbing his burning nose. He suspected the cabbage had migrated to his right nostril.
“Anasi was worried about you,” his brother said quietly. “She didn’t know if you’d come back if you had trouble. She said you’d be so worried about us, you wouldn’t worry about yourself.”
“I mostly read to him,” Khirkara burst out. “I mean, this week and last week, anyway. He’s—he’s not been well, and it’s hard for him to read on his own—he’s more interested in the outdoors, anyway. Before we were taking walks, and he was showing me all of the trees. There’s a book—there’s such a library in the house, Khirhebek, you wouldn’t believe it—I can’t imagine what kind of family he’s from—but he’s nearly as interested in this book as I am—”
“I suppose he’s lonely,” Khirhebek said, sounding skeptical. “If he’s only got the one servant for company, he’s probably relieved to hear someone else’s voice, no matter what they’re talking about.”
Khirkara stopped eating, stung. He blew on a dumpling, wondering how to explain that Khirhebek hadn’t quite understood the situation. Unless—maybe he had understood it better than Khirkara. Maybe he was so lonely himself that he was imagining Atzgar’s pleasure in his company.
“I don’t think so,” he said. “He thinks I’m funny.” He shoved another dumpling in his mouth and burned his tongue again. It didn’t taste as good as the first five had.
“Of course he does,” Khirhebek said, getting up and putting his plate in the washbasin. “You’ve got the quickest mind of the three of us, even if you do make annoyingly academic jokes.”
That wasn’t exactly true either, but Khirkara felt too deflated to correct him.
His brother had to dress and leave to go to the tea house. He didn’t know exactly which friend Khirlaion and Anasi were visiting, but he said he’d give them Khirkara’s love when he next saw them.
Cut to the SHEPHERD sitting behind the coals of a campfire. It is evening, getting on toward nightfall, and the embers throw red light on his face. There are shadows and the echoes of people talking around him, implying his brothers have returned, though we do not see them. He looks tired and contemplative and stares at the embers, rubbing his right wrist with his left hand. The BRACELET that has covered this wrist is now absent, and in its place are a few dark scabs.
He suddenly understands that he has lost the bracelet of thorns given to him by the Beast and freezes, his hand clamped around his wrist, his eyes growing wide.