I had never had much faith in the world to begin with, since life had dealt me a bad hand. When Mother died on my fourteenth birthday, I completely lost any hope I’d had left, resigned to slaving away behind a locked door in an underground basement, never to see the light of day again.
I was born during the midst of winter when a snowstorm raged endlessly, its whiteness blanketed the land as far as the eye could see, and the coldness penetrated to the depths of the bones. Mother had told me that I had been difficult when coming into the world. She had thought that either I, or both of us, would die that night. Miraculously enough, however, we both survived, that was…until fourteen years later when she was the one who died instead—of sickness and exhaustion, which I had seen coming. I had known she wouldn’t last, since we were treated as no less than slaves by the people of the house—whom I later discovered were my grandfather, father, and their other family.
My mother had been the daughter of a humble merchant who traveled through the very prosperous village many years before I was born. She had met and fallen in love with a son of the head of the village. Once married, and her dowry completely depleted, she was reduced to nothing more than a servant of the house. Then my father was remarried to a much younger, more beautiful woman from a rich family of another village.
Since birth, I had known of only my mother’s love. We’d spend our days working in the basement of my father’s manor, washing, sewing, and doing whatever was asked of us, in exchange for food and shelter, if indeed one called a prison-like room a shelter.
Our room was small, with a hard bed to share between us and a single candle to light the darkness during the night. It was during this time, too, when Mother would teach me to read and write with whatever material she had managed to procure from upstairs when no one was looking. She told me that my education was more important than the beatings she would receive if the people upstairs were to find out.
Once I’d learned how to read and write, Mother would bring me books from upstairs, too. Of course, those books put a lot of fantastical thoughts and ideas into my young mind. I started imagining the outside world the books described, and I asked why I couldn’t go out—because the sun that was shining through the window above us was so beautiful and inviting. Mother would then reply that we weren’t allowed, and that the world out there was dangerous, with beasts that’d eat a beautiful child like me.
Curious as I had been, I didn’t listen to her and sneaked out, even though I was afraid of those so-called beasts Mother had spoken of.
The first time I saw sunlight and the outside world, I was amazed, and fell instantly in love with my surroundings. I loved the way the warmth of the sun touched my skin and the way its brightness made everything look so beautiful. I especially loved the pleasant scent of colorful flowers, the birds and insects, and the cats and dogs that roamed across the abandoned courtyard I frequently visited.
When Mother passed away, I felt defeated, depressed, and no longer wanted to venture to the outside world, because I had lost the only person I loved dearly. I was heartbroken.
For another four years, I was locked in the basement, made to work as usual with whatever the housekeeper and maids brought me. Despite their show of disgust at the sight of me, I thought they seemed to be keeping an even closer eye on me, for what reason, I didn’t know. After all, I hadn’t attempted any escape, nor did I do anything that might have caused them concern.
Of course, it wasn’t like I was so obedient and timid that I’d do anything they told me to do. Mother had told me that I had a strong will, a mind of my own, and that I was very intelligent, artistic, and I’d achieve great things in the future. I wanted to laugh at that very idea now. Indeed, there was no future for me, so there was nothing that I could achieve. If I didn’t work, I wouldn’t be able to eat. If I didn’t finish whatever task was thrust upon me, I’d be beaten and starved, and I learned that harsh lesson when I was a child. I had seen it done to my mother so many times, until she had fallen so sick, in fact, that she died. Mother, after all, had a strong will and mind of her own, too, which I imagined I had inherited from her. I knew that it wouldn’t be too long until it was my turn to die of exhaustion and sickness, just like her.
I endured these harsh treatments, resigned to my fate until I turned eighteen. That was when I had decided to stop waiting for the inevitable, that slow painful death fate was going to grant me. I decided to take fate into my own hands and act instead, turning it into my destiny.
I decided to escape and go out into the world, to live my life for myself. I no longer wanted to be a mere slave to those people upstairs I had never seen. But, of course, I didn’t get far, because the moment I managed to get outside, I was caught and dragged back into my imprisonment, beaten, and put under lock and chain.
As I lay there, bruised and bleeding from numerous wounds, the sight of those two girls I had met along the dark corridor of the manor, of their screaming voices and the show of disgust on their faces, never left my mind.
Why had they screamed in fear and disgust, like they had seen a beast? Why? I didn’t know.
It had been a week, and my wound was slowly healing nicely, when the housekeeper and two men came down. I sat up the moment I heard their footsteps.
The housekeeper unlocked and then opened the door. A moment later, the two men stepped in. One was middle-aged and the other younger, perhaps in his late thirties. They looked similar so I assumed they must be father and son.
Still chained to my bed, I asked, “Who are you people?”
The younger man came forward and smiled at me. It was the first time anyone apart from Mother had smiled at me, and I hated it immediately. I didn’t know why, but I could see it in his eyes that he wasn’t genuine. His smile wasn’t real.
He touched my hair and said, “I’m your father, Lilly.”
I simply stared at him, in astonishment. Father? He said he was my father? And he knew my name.
I frowned, confused, as thousands of questions rampaged through my mind.
I had asked Mother who my father was when I had been young, and she had told me that he lived upstairs with his other family and that he couldn’t see me. Of course, I had been fine with that since I had never needed anyone else, apart from Mother. Besides, I always thought that if my father truly loved and cared about me, he’d come to see me and help us but…
But he had never once showed his face to me, and now, this man who claimed to be my father just suddenly turned up like this, and expected me to open my arms wide and let him into my small, disgusting, dark world? Hell, no!
I shifted my gaze to the older man standing by my so-called father. He had gray hair and a stern, angular face. He stared at me blankly, as if he didn’t see me in front of him. Or rather, he didn’t want to see me in front of him.
“And you?” I asked, my eyes on him, refusing to feel like I was a piece of rubbish beneath his royal feet.
It seemed like he didn’t want to exchange words with someone as lowly as me. He said, “The village leader, your grandfather.”
I sensed a sort of revulsion within his voice when he said “your grandfather” that didn’t sit well with me.
Of course, I expected as much that he was my grandfather, and truth be told, I didn’t much appreciate that fact. I mean, what blood-related grandfather would do something like this to his own granddaughter? Locking her up underground, in the basement of the manor, along with her frail and sick mother?
I snorted. “I didn’t know I had a father or a grandfather. That’s odd, I seem to remember that the housekeeper told me you were the one ordering those men to beat me up last week.”
I saw his face harden and grow red with rage at my accusation. “You deserved to be beaten, you heathen witch! How dare you try to escape? Everything could have been ruined. Our village would have turned into a disaster.”
Everything ruined? The village turned into a disaster? Really?
I was so angry at the very thought that I was simply nothing to these men that I lunged forward, wanting so much to bash this so-called grandfather of mine in the face. But the chains around my wrists obstructed me, stopping me in my tracks, and pulling me back onto the bed.
My father said, “Now, Lilly, do calm down. We’re doing what’s good for—”
“Good?” I interrupted him, almost hysterical. “Good for whom? You? Your family upstairs? The village? What about Mother? She died and nobody cared. God, I hope you all rot in hell.”
“That’s enough!” Grandfather said as he came forward and slapped me on the face.
I sucked in my breath. My cheek hot and stinging with pain.
“Listen here, you little heathen witch,” he said. “You are nothing more than a thing to be sacrificed for the sake of the village to prosper. You hear? Nothing more than a thing.”
I frowned in confusion. I was a what? A thing? To be sacrificed?
Panic seized me and I felt paralyzed. Could this explain why I was locked up? Because I was merely a pawn to be sacrificed? But for what?
Surely, they must be jesting, right? Right?
“Get her cleaned up!” Grandfather snapped at the housekeeper, who was hovering behind him near the door. “The ceremony starts tonight.” He turned on his heel and left the room.
I shifted my gaze to my so-called father, hoping for a sort of light to shine upon my confused situation. He merely avoided my eye contact and said, “I’m sorry, Lilly, but it’s for the best of the village. This is our only way. This is our tradition.”
With that, he left the room as well, leaving me to drown in sorrow at my sorry fate.
* * *
Despite how much I fought back, I couldn’t escape the two sternly built maids who came to drag me upstairs, as commanded by my grandfather. I was shoved into what I assume was a bathing chamber, and the maids started to get me cleaned up. They gleefully told me that if I didn’t behave, they’d beat me up as no one cared if I was dead or alive, since I was to be sacrificed to the beast, anyway.
So, I was to be sacrificed to the beast? This was the first time I ever heard the two words put together in one sentence. Sacrificed and beast. And I was to be a pawn, an offering for the beast.
As the two women scrubbed me clean from my weeks’ worth of dirt and grime, tears brewed in my eyes and flowed down my cheeks.
So, this was my death sentence, then? I was to be eaten by the infamous beast that resided within the Forbidden Forest to the south of the village, where the offer was made once every five years or so.
I had known my death would come soon, but not this soon and certainly not in this way, and indeed, I cried my heart out like my life depended on it. My life did depend on it, in a way, because I just couldn’t cope.
When my bathing was done, I was forced to wear a white, flimsy garment that showed too much of my skin. The material was almost see-through, and though I felt uncomfortable and very embarrassed, I also didn’t care very much. Really, what did I care about wearing such a garment when I was about to be eaten by a beast at any moment now?
The two women made me sit and wait until I was called upon, when the time came for the ceremony. They also didn’t miss a beat to tell me that if I were to try anything shady, the men outside guarding the room would not hesitate to end my life here and now, and simply throw my dead body to the beast. Either way, the beast would still get his offering and the ceremony would still be a success.
Of course, once they were gone, I contemplated the idea of either dying now, or waiting for the inevitability of the beast eating me. I thought about trying something “shady” as the maids had put it, but found that my body couldn’t move. Apparently, I was so petrified that my body had become stiff.
I sighed in resignation as my gaze wandered aimlessly about the room. That was when that I sighted myself through the mirror sitting across from me.
Staring back at me was a girl I didn’t know. Well, truth be told, I had never seen myself in the mirror before, and certainly, this would be the first time.
I had no idea that my hair was so pale, like the white-silver color of the albino kitten I had seen in the abandoned courtyard to the north of the manor I used to frequent when I had been a child. Nor did I realize that my skin was so fair. My lips were dark red, while my cheeks and the rims of my eyes were bright and pink from the crying.
I had no idea if I was beautiful or not, but I couldn’t stop staring at myself, wondering why I looked like this. I mean, I didn’t look like the people around here I had seen so far, not even my father and grandfather, who were supposedly related to me by blood, nor did I look like my mother. Indeed, my mother looked absolutely nothing like my father or his people. She had black hair, her skin had been milky pale in yellow tones, and her dark eyes were slanted upward, which I inherited from her. In my eyes and heart, she had been beautiful, my mother.
No, I didn’t look like anyone I had seen, not even the two girls standing behind me now, snickering as they stared at me like I was an odd creature that shouldn’t exist in this world.
I hastily turned at their noises, wondering who they were. One had golden-blonde hair, while the other a light brown. They both were absolutely beautiful, and indeed, they took my breath away at the mere sight.
“Who are you?” I asked without thinking.
They didn’t answer my question. One said, “You’re as ugly as when we last saw you.”
Now, if I remembered correctly, they were the two girls who had spotted me last week and started screaming at me before I had been caught during my escape endeavor.
“Who are you?” I asked again, ignoring the criticism they hurled at me.
The other one said, “You don’t need to know who we are, you silly heathen witch.”
The brown-haired girl nodded. “That’s right. We’re only here to take a sneak peek at the girl who’s going to be eaten by a beast for the sake of our village.”
The blonde nodded furiously. “That’s right. That’s right.”
I narrowed my eyes, and it was then that I noted the resemblance. These two girls looked a lot like my father, whom I had just met, and I knew instantly that they must be his daughters, his family who lived upstairs. I felt something like rage erupting within me and I snapped, “Go away if you don’t want me to slap you silly girls senseless.”
The brown-haired sister, I assumed she was the older one, chuckled in amusement. “You dare to lay a hand on us? Grandfather will kill you if you do that, you know.”
The younger sister nodded her head again. “That’s right. That’s right. That’s if Father or Mother don’t get their hands on you first.” Then she laughed merrily. “They love us and wouldn’t dare let a heathen girl like you touch us.”
The older sister nodded furiously.
It looked like they were having a lot of fun at my expense, and I just couldn’t stand that. Not when I was about to die at a beast’s hands—or claws or mouth or whatever—for God’s sake.
Suddenly, I found the strength to stand. With my head held high, I marched toward them, which unsurprisingly, frightened them senseless. They even started screaming their heads off the moment they saw my murderously glinting eyes and my raised hand, ready to slap them.
But of course, their shrieks had drawn the attention of the two men guarding the room outside, and they banged the door open and rushed in immediately.
The moment they saw me, they came to a sudden stop and simply stared at me like they had never seen me before. Well, of course, they had never seen me before. I was locked up in the basement of the manor for eighteen years, after all.
I noted one was swallowing hard as his eyes trailed from my face down to my chest and lower. Suddenly, I felt a little sick to the stomach, and my head felt a little dizzy. My whole body started to shake when one started to come toward me, and then grabbed my wrist. He pulled me to him and I gasped in surprise. God, but the heat exuding from his body made me even sicker. I was so frightened that I struggled hard for him to release me, but he wouldn’t let me go. The other one came to grab my other wrist, too, and I screamed in reaction.
“Let me go! Let me go!” I shouted at the top of my lungs, tears in my eyes.
When they still refused, I bit into one hand, hard. The man yelped and released me instantly. When I was about to do the same to the other, he quickly let go of my hand before I could give him the same treatment. In the process, I found myself falling back and slipped on the wet marble floor. In the flick of an instant, I fell into the pool.
I struggled as I tried to regain my composure in the water, and once I did, I was completely wet again from head to toe.
The two men were still staring at me with those hungry eyes that scared me to my bones. I knew I looked very naked with this flimsy garment, all wet and clinging to my skin, so I hugged myself to cover as much as I could.
I was about to get out of the pool and find somewhere to hide, when my father and grandfather walked in, along with a beautiful woman and a few other people dressed in fine garments. I assumed they were of noble blood, here to attend the much-anticipated ceremony, an offering of a maiden to the magical beast.
Grandfather took one look at me and sneered in disgust. He shouted in rage, “Get her ready. The ceremony starts now.” He turned to glare at the two men and snapped, “Get yourself under control!”
With that, he was gone, followed by everyone else, except for the two maids who came toward me and dragged me out of the pool. Without even considering getting me a dry, decent garment to change into, they led me out the door.
The moment I stepped outside, a blast of cold air touched my wet skin and I sucked in my breath. As I tried to keep up with their hurried steps, I noticed a thick crowd of people down below in the immaculately kept courtyard.
In their hands were lit torches, pushing back the darkness of the night, while they cheered and sang at the sight of me. Obviously, they were happy to see me go. They were overjoyed, in fact, to sacrifice me to a beast.
When I came down the stairs, I noted the prison-like carriage that I assumed was for me. I wasn’t wrong and was roughly nudged to climb into the vehicle; as I was doing so, I didn’t miss the men’s eyes on me, leering at me like I was something out of this world, something they had never seen before. Again, their dark gazes made me feel sick to the stomach, and I felt disgusted.
Suddenly, I wanted to cry. Oh, God, how was I to escape this now? How was it that I could willingly go to my death in such a way? Where was my will to fight for survival? Mother would be very upset and saddened at my sudden weakness. I was supposed to be smart, and have a strong will. I was supposed to creatively come up with a way of escape in order to live my own life. But I couldn’t do any of those things, and I was very upset at my own incompetence.
Tears welled in my eyes as I heard the door of the carriage being shut and locked behind me. It wasn’t long until the parade started, moving along the main road of the village, with my grandfather and father on horseback, leading the crowd.
That journey toward the Forbidden Forest to the south of the village—a place I had heard of many times from Mother but had never seen—was both so short and so long at the same time.
As we got closer, I stared mindlessly ahead of me at the beautiful aurora that blazed across the sky just above the forest itself. I was going to die soon, and despite that I wanted to escape, both my body and brain were paralyzed in fear.
We were at the edge of the forest now, and as the crowd slowed, I noticed that the aurora was part of a barrier between the village land and that of the forest. It looked as though it was acting like a gate between two worlds; this prosperous village and the Forbidden Forest where the magical beast ruled.
During my childhood I had heard people gossiping that in that forest was more than just the magical beast, who was over a thousand years old, with a wolf-like body, and a frightening, menacing demonic face. In that forest, there were many other monsters and unknown creatures, too. If a human of the village were to wander aimlessly into that world and get caught, he would be killed and devoured for sure.
Beast. Monsters. Unknown creatures. The very words only managed to incite more fear into my being.
When we came to a stop, I found myself shaking with anxiety. Oh, God. Oh, God. I was going to be eaten by a beast any moment now.
I stayed in the prison of the carriage as my grandfather performed some sort of ceremony, praying quietly and then chanting loudly. When he was done some moments later, the crowd cheered and shouted, “Prosperity and wealth for the village! Prosperity and wealth for the village!”
Suddenly, the carriage door was unlocked and then opened with a clang, which made me jump in fright. A stern-looking elderly man caught me by the arm and roughly pulled me out. I stumbled down and fell onto my knees, scraping my skin against the rough earth in the process. He pulled me up and snapped, “Get moving!”
I stumbled on my feet a couple more times because I was so scared; my mind was numb, and my body couldn’t move properly. When I found myself in front of my so-called grandfather and father, I regained some of my senses.
I just didn’t know what to say or think, but I did know that I didn’t want these people to prosper, the people who had never been kind to me or my mother. The people who had always treated us like rubbish.
I said, tears in my eyes, “I hope you all rot in hell.”
My so-called grandfather said, “This village will prosper. We will prosper, and now off with you.” He raised his hands up to the heavens and shouted, “Beast, take our offering and give us wealth and prosperity!”
Suddenly, the sky above us rumbled and lightning flashed. The aurora behind me burned even brighter, in brilliant colors. I didn’t miss the many expectant pairs of eyes on me, as Grandfather leaned toward me and shoved me, offering me without my consent to the magical beast of the Forbidden Forest.