March royalties are from the pseudo-kingdoms that surround Gepaul. Also known as marches, these territories are granted to families in exchange for protecting Gepaul from external threats. The use of “prince” and “princess” is allowed to describe the heads of the marches, but “king” and “queen” is not.
— Dainak University Press, The Complex System of Rule Across the World
The woods above the town were sparse but big. They were also very wet from the rain. Every time Daman or Beauty pushed a branch aside to get around a tree, a shower of droplets would poured down and soak them.
“You know, I like it better when it's dark woods and you can't see the sky,” Daman said cheerfully.
“Except when you lost your boots in the swamp.”
“Fine. Dark woods always have murky swamps with green bubbles everywhere and it is stinks. There is always slime and plants that want to eat you.” He used his gloved hand to shake a branch and then step away for the inevitable downpour. Gracefully, he swept around to bring his arm around her waist and pull her into a kiss.
With a coo of surprise, she closed her eyes as the water sluiced off their bodies and soaked into the thick mats of pine needles at their feet.
They broke with a chuckle.
“You know,” she said, “you don't have to do that every time.”
“I like to,” Daman announced and then released her to lead again. “I like it when you smile like that.”
“Is that why you pulled my hat aside last time?”
“I said that was a mistake! How much do I have to beg?”
A mistake that caused her underclothes to get wet. It was uncomfortable, but she hoped they would find a place to strip and dry off. Maybe a camp in the privacy. She grinned. “Only until I can get you on your knees.”
“Not right now, we're heading toward a tower. There are monsters around here.”
A breeze rustled his hair, pulling it back just so his face was perfectly framed when he looked back. “It's a promise. Next time is for you.”
A little tickle of warmth pushed back the cold.
“Come on, I think I see it.”
“Really?” Her heart jumped. As much as she loved Daman as he was, she still wanted the beast back.
Together, they hurried to the ridge of the path they were following. Ahead, about half a mile, a blue tower rose up above the tree line. Even from a distance, she could see light bouncing off glass or something reflective. A thin plume of smoke rose up from a chimney that had been built into the side. The dark smoke only rose a few feet before the rain bore it down.
“Someone's home,” he said wistfully.
“I hope they can help.”
A roar burst out to the side and both jumped.
“Monster,” Daman said as he turned and ran toward the noise. His sword scraped along the mouth of his sheath as he drew it.
Beauty raced after him but kept her weapon sheathed. It would be foolish to run with a bare weapon, but she wasn't going to tell him anything. He fought his way, she fought hers.
Together, they scrambled over outcroppings and roots. When Daman went left around a tree, she dove for the right. They never followed one after each other, at least not after the pit trap a few years ago. Or the ambush earlier that year.
Just as she hauled herself up a boulder, Daman yelled out.
She turned as something leaped from the side, a slender white creature with unnaturally long claws dripping red. Matching red eyes focused on her as the creature reached out for her.
Beauty threw herself forward, rolling along the slick surface of the boulder. She caught herself along a ridge, noticed that there was solid-looking ground on the far side, and then slid down to land heavily in a bed of pine needles and leaves. Panting, she spun around and grabbed her hilt with one hand and the top of her sheath with another, watching the ridge for the attack.
It came from the side, the weasel-like creature snaking around before launching itself against at her.
Moving with practiced grace and years of practice, she respond quickly in rapid beats.
The blade snapped out in a streak of steel and cut into the weasel. The magically sharpened metal cut through the creature and sliced through muscle and bone.
Beauty continued her movement to spin around.
The tip punched into the monster's chest and slid between its ribs. She leaned into the blow as it pierced inner organs. She hoped that she caught its heart. To make sure, she twisted hard and jerked the hilt of the sword to force the tip of her weapon to catch on many organs as possible. She then yanked her weapon free with a downward stroke that tore open the monster's belly.
The creature made a long gasp before it slumped to the bolder, leaving a smear of crimson that quickly washed away in the rain.
Beauty gasped for breath for a moment, her eyes scanning for an immediately threat. Feeling nothing looming or charging at her, she let herself relax slightly and looked further away.
Daman's yell caught her attention. “Beauty!”
She wiped the blade and sheathed it again before running toward the noise. The thud of her boots could barely be heard over the pounding rain. The water-logged pine needles slipped underneath her and she grabbed at the trees and branches when she passed them.
Her prince stood only feet away from two more of the weasel creatures. A third writhed on the ground a few yards again, its throat cut and blood spraying everywhere in its death throes.
Beyond the gruesome fight, she saw four more weasels were fighting something large, another creature with tawny fur and about the size of a riding horse.
They were too far away to attack quickly and Beauty focused on her prince to join his fight.
Daman's attacks were fast and hard. They didn't use her grace but instead used his strength as he chopped and slashed at the creatures. Before she could reach him, he managed to shatter one of the weasel's ribs and slash through its heart. It fell back with a high-pitched scream.
“I'm here,” she called out, her eyes scanning for other threats.
“Off right tree! Thick branch!” he yelled, not taking his eyes of his opponent."
She spotted the branch he mentioned. It looked thick enough to hold her weight and would bring her around to the back of his opponent. The end was dipped low, the needles held down by the weight of the water pouring onto it from a higher branch.
Griping her hilt tightly, she jumped through the streamer of water and raced up the branch. At the truck, she kicked out and caught it hard. With a surge, she launched herself up in a low arc over the weasel.
As soon as she saw bloodied white fur, she spun around and snapped out with her sword.
It caught the neck of the weasel and cut cleanly through.
She landed on the ground but slipped on wet needles. With an inarticulate shriek, she fell on her rear. Gasping, she scrambled to her feet and spun around with her sword ready to parry.
The two thuds of the creature's corpse hitting the ground brought a smile.
Then the ground gave away underneath her. She slid further back with a gasp.
Daman caught her. He pulled her up and kissed her. “My Beauty.”
She smiled. “My prince.”
“Damn you, bitches!” The voice bellowed out from the fight near the other creatures. It was masculine and growling, like a woodsman coming out of the cold. The sound of it caused a quiver in Beauty's gut, it reminded her of Daman's growl when he had been transformed into a beast. Back when she first fell in love.
As one, Daman and Beauty looked over to where the creatures fought. There were four of the white creatures, but two more had been killed and were sprawled out on the forest floor.
The other creature looked more like a mountain lion, but one that was easily triple the size of any lion Beauty had seen before. He, she guessed based on the voice, had thick limbs and jowls around its bloody muzzle, but the tawny fur and dark mask around his eyes was distinctively a mountain lion's coloration.
He favored his back right leg. She caught glimpses of blood running down in thick rivers from a pair of scratches that had gouged deep into his flanks. Claws crushed branches as he inched away from the four giant weasels that threatened him.
“Curse?” Daman said in a hopeful whisper.
“Curse,” she smiled broadly. They had finally found one.
Daman grinned like a fool and then charge forward, bellowing at the top of his lungs.
“Oh, for the—” Beauty chased after him. She kept her sword away from her body as she circled away to flank them.
One weasel peeled off from harrying the mountain lion to launch itself at Daman. Despite being huge, its wiry body sprung the distance.
Beauty cut across in front of her love and ducked down. As the weasel sailed over her, she jammed her sword up into its throat and braced herself.
The momentum tore open the creature's belly.
It fell on the other side of her, landing on the ground between Daman and herself. Entrails poured out from the wound.
He rushed past her.
Spinning on her heels, Beauty sprinted after him.
Two weasels rushed toward them.
Daman shoved the other one aside before slamming his sword into one behind it. His sword flashed with light as he brought the blade down right on its skull, slicing it in half.
Beauty caught the teeth of the attacking weasel with her sword. Her weapon bent from the force of the blow. The sharp edge dug into the gum of the creature but it didn't flinch as it claws and scratched at her.
Then, Daman stepped back and brought his sword down on the creature's spine. A muted crack of shattered bone and the creature shuddered to a stop.
He wiped the blood away from his face, it left his skin as clear as if he had stepped out of a scented bath. “Are you safe?”
Panting, Beauty nodded. She snapped her sword to the side to flick the blood off and then sheathed it.
With a high-pitched scream, the remaining weasel suddenly turned tail and bounded away, bouncing as much as running. The crimson-stained furry blurred and then it was lost among the branches and trees.
“How… how did it hide that fast?” Daman said.
Beauty didn't take her eyes off the mountain lion who crouched only a few yards away.
He snarled back at her, his eyes wide as he regarded beauty and prince.
She delicately elbowed her prince to pay attention before hold out her bare palms. “Hello there.”
The lion reared back and then spun on his heels. Water-thin blooded splashed everywhere before he leaped over a fallen tree and bounded higher into the mountains.
“Well, that was rude.”
She gave her prince a hard look. “You have terrible manners too.”
“What do you mean, I'm a prince!” He said with a puffed out chest, but his eyes were sparkling.
“You drank out of the toilet and ate raw deer on the good tablecloth. We had to replace it three times while you were trying to learn how to eat with forks again. You were a monster.”
“You also shit in the corners of the west wing.”
He closed his eyes with a snap. “Fine. I was the monster.”
“Yes,” she said, her voice softer. “But you were the monster I fell in love with.”
He reached out and took her hand, pulling her close until he could press her palm to his chest. “He's still here somewhere. Soon, you'll have him back.”
“Then I will truly have my happily ever after.”