Spring brought snow melt and a new breed of problems.
“Did you think you were the only one wants me dead?” the Beast asked, sharp teeth bared in a grin. Blood spattered his face and hair; his trousers and coat remained spotless.
Corbin swallowed back bile.
“I hadn’t given it much thought,” he admitted, eyeing the three fallen men in their bailey side-long. “Did you have to tear them to pieces?”
The Beast shrugged. His yellow eyes gleamed as he considered the splatter of gore across fountain, gate, and garden. Then he wrinkled his nose.
“Messy, but efficient. They came to kill me, Red, and I’ve better things to do than play the victim. Clean this up, will you?”
“No,” replied Corbin, crossing his arms over his chest. He wasn’t a stranger to blood or bared muscle and organ; he’d butchered his fair share of game. But it wasn’t fresh-killed venison steaming in the bailey; those were human intestines hanging from the lowest garden branches.
The Beast sighed. “They’re not from Littleton,” he said. “No one you know. Mercenaries, likely, sent by the Huntsman.”
Blood stained the demon’s bowed mouth. He licked it away with a delicate swipe of pink tongue. Corbin shuddered and swallowed hard to keep from loosing a late breakfast of tea and scones.
“The Huntsman,” the Beast confirmed. “He sends a group or three every spring, as soon as the passes clear. He wants my head for his trophy wall, you see. I believe it’s a matter of over-inflated ego. And stupidity. As it’s not by sword or fire I’ll die, but by – “
“Shut up,” Corbin interrupted. “I’m going back to bed. Get rid of this.” He waved a hand, hated that his fingers shook. “It’s horrific. Monstrous. Murder.”
He hid in his room under a mountain of soft quilts until sunset. When the brightly colored nesting birds returned through his broken window and settled for the night on his armoire, the Beast came with them, only properly through the chamber door.
“It’s not murder if it’s self-defense,” he said, climbing onto the mattress, sitting cross-legged by Corbin’s tatty pillow. “I didn’t track those men down because I was desirous of a snack, Corbin. They breached my gate, attacked me.“
Corbin groaned, and rolled his head on the pillow. He cracked his eyelids, squinting up at his friend. The Beast was clean again, his dark hair braided back. He smelled of yeast and baking, and Corbin wished he wasn’t so beautiful, limned pink against the setting sun.
“You should have sent them away,” Corbin said. “Frightened them or bribed them, as you did Belle, let your wolves chase them back through the forest to wheresoever they came. You didn’t need to strip their flesh from their bones with your fingernails.”
“I promise you, they meant to do the same to me.” The Beast studied his hands. “I can’t show my enemies mercy, Corbin. The softer I appear, the more will coming hunting the Manor Beast and his legendary treasure.” He sighed, and petted the tip of Corbin’s nose with his thumb. “A few good spring massacres and they leave me alone until first thaw comes again.”
Corbin jerked away, burrowed further under the quilts.
“Go away,” he said.
The Beast sighed again, and patted Corbin’s back through the bedding. The mattress squeaked as he hopped off, then hesitated.
“Have you yet killed your first man, Corbin?” he asked.
“Go away,” Corbin repeated, thumping a fist into his pillow, and this time the Beast complied.
Spring passed in sinuous, sleepy days. The Beast’s dead garden refused to bloom, but the forest past the Manor gates teamed with life and color. Four more parties of foolish men and women came hunting the Beast. The demon youth killed them all without hesitation or apparent relish. A knot settled in Corbin’s stomach, and wouldn’t be soothed by food or drink or sleep. He took to walking this nerves out beneath the forest canopy, spending most of his days wandering away from the Manor, shadowed always by one or more of the Beast’s watchful wolves.
He spoke to the Beast little if at all.
Corbin returned earlier than usual one afternoon, legs made leaden by the heat of approaching summer, still stepping so lightly across sticks and grass that he heard the voices long before he laid eyes on the Manor. He slowed, holding his breath, and reached automatically for his sword.
“Leave here.” Corbin recognized the Beast’s flat, bored tones. “Tell your master to give up the hunt. He’ll not have my head, nor any other piece of me. This game has grown tedious; there’s no pleasure left in it.”
Corbin slipped from the forest, pressed his spine against tree bark, safe in the edge of shadow. The Beast, standing casually outside the unlocked bailey gate, a clutch of summer herbs in his hand, didn’t appear to see him. Neither did the squat, muscle-bound man who held a glittering dirk against the demon’s slender throat.
“No game, this,” the man said in a thick accent. Foreign, Corbin decided, in strange, heavy mail, black tattoos decorating dark skin. “This is livelihood, and you are very valuable.”
The Beast’s fine, dark brows rose to his hairline. His yellow eyes sparked.
“Worth that much, am I? Huntsman must be growing desperate, or suffering wide-spread embarrassment. I’ve plenty of gold myself, you know. I’ll pay you to leave me be.”
The mercenary laughed. “Fool,” he scoffed. “I’d but take your gold and kill you anyway.”
“Yes,” the demon said, and then he looked straight at Corbin. “I thought you might. Here, then, let’s get it over – ah!”
The gasp was pain and surprise, as the tattooed man’s knife sliced the Beast’s throat, and red blood burst. The Beast dropped his herbs, collapsed back against the gate, pressed trembling fingers against the wound.
“Magic knife,” the mercenary laughed again. “Charmed by witches. You’re stupid, the others were stupid, I am not.”
The little knife rose again, a shining arc, but Corbin cut the man down before the blade could fall. The strange armor caught at his sword, sticking, and Corbin had to throw his entire weight into the cut, using the ground as leverage.
The man groaned, and fell, taking Corbin’s sword with him. Blood bubbled from his nose and mouth. He twitched, coughing, but didn’t rise.
Corbin wheeled and caught the Beast where he stood clinging with one hand to the gate, patting desperately at the smiling cut with his other.
“Are you – ?”
The Beast shook his head, eyes wide and startled.
“Hurts,” he admitted, a whisper. “It will heal. They always do. He was right.” Dark lashes fluttered as the demon glanced over Corbin’s shoulder at the mercenary. “I was stupid.” He breathed low, leaned hard against Corbin. “I should have ripped him to bits immediately. Chatting him. Up. Was a mistake. Don’t know why I. Bothered.”
Corbin scooped the Beast up, stepped over the dying man, shoved the gate open with his knee. He put the demon to bed on the old sofa in the library, cleaned blood from his friend’s face and throat as best he could, watched in disbelief as the deep wound sealed itself without scarring.
Then he went back to the edge of the forest and retrieved his sword from the dead man’s back. The blade grated against bone, and already the corpse was beginning to smell ripe. Corbin swallowed away sickness, and wiped moisture from his nose and eyes with the back of his sleeve.
He cleaned his sword against the grass and took it with him into the library, where he laid it across his knees as he sat on the floor against the sofa. He rested his head back against the Beast’s thigh, and closed his eyes.
The Beast slept past moonrise, and then woke with a start. Corbin stirred.
“He was your first,” the demon said, voice like rough stone. “Did you vomit, after? Did you weep?”
“No,” Corbin replied. “Did you…did you know…was that purposeful?”
“Was it a lesson taught?” The Beast said, gentle. “No. But it worked out rather well for me. Point made?”
“Yes,” Corbin said, staring at the cracks and stains in the library ceiling. “Point made.”