Iron Grey

There was once a boy called Grey. Poor and not the most gifted looks-wise but there was a certain something in his face which deserved to be called attractive: perhaps some hint in the eyes of a thinking, meditative, intelligent soul or some trace of strength in a jaw which had suffered years of clenching in silent defiance of life’s difficulties…or maybe it was as simple as the slightly overlong hair and the permanent five o’ clock shadow which lent him a somewhat roguish air. Whichever of the above it was, he was proud of it. His pride made him arrogant. His arrogance made him uncaring. He did have a good enough heart to have rescued him from these ills. If he’d been allowed the time.

Our Grey was as insecure as he was vain. What he saw in the eyes of the girls’ in the nearest town made him vain. (It was a town where a few unfortunately featured families’ genes had gradually increased their domination over the gene-pool for generations and cursed almost all the male inhabitants with almost preternaturally plain countenances.) What he saw in his mother’s eyes and in his own reflection (that is, the truth) left him insecure. And what he saw in his soul…well, more insecure still. As I’ve mentioned he had a good heart somewhere in there, and it led him to suspect that that soul of his didn’t deserve the twinkle in those girls’ eyes at all.

Like all people with that unfortunate mixture of vanity and insecurity, he was somewhat prone to pointing out the ‘imperfections’ of those less attractive than he thought himself, or wanted to think himself, to be. It should be said in his defence that this particularly unappealing trait came into sight really only when he was angry. That heart of his could ill stand tears and if he had time or temper to think of it he would never want to hurt anyone. Unfortunately, I must also mention that a quick temper was another of his youthful failings…

One day he was walking home through the woods from the nearest town feeling particularly pleased with himself and particularly moody; a strange combination fully explained by the young maid Sarah’s fluttery-eyed smile and an unusually tough wrangle with the local cloth merchant over the price to be paid for some of his own (although THAT was something of a secret) and his mother’s best embroidery work. The latter had made him late to set off back home and he looked forward to a fight through the trees in the deepening twilight. No doubt getting hit in the face by an inexhaustible number of tree branches, being tripped by a veritable labyrinth of tree roots and managing to unerringly find every left-over spring puddle with his (relatively) clean boots were among the delights awaiting him.

It wasn’t the most propitious moment to have met a fee. Perhaps you haven’t met a fee. Maybe they don’t live in your part of the world. Well, let me fill you in. They’re small, highly magical, have the shortest temper known to any living creature and are real sticklers for manners. Grey didn’t really stand a chance.

He tripped over the fee, although ‘tripped over’ doesn’t really do the moment justice. He wasn’t looking where he was going and he kicked the 6 inch high fellow into the nearest tree. Fees aren’t naturally vindictive and an apology might have done it. Maybe. An apology was notably absent from the flow of words which left Grey as he lay on the floor looking into the eyes of the creature he was inclined to accuse of tripping him. I won’t go into exactly what he said, as I wouldn’t like anyone to follow that example, but suffice to say that ‘snub-nosed’, ‘ugly’, ‘bum-faced’, ‘midget’ and other stronger and even more disagreeable words were heard. I won’t defend Grey, I can’t.

The fee pulled himself to his full height and asked calmly in a most chilly voice, “Have you finished, Grey?”

It was hearing his name rather than the prodding of his conscience which stopped the flow of Grey’s words.

“How do you know my name?” he demanded. Compared to his other sins that night, this wasn’t high up on the list but I wouldn’t, personally, recommend demanding anything from a fee.

“Oh, I know you, insolent boy. I know your vanity and your rudeness. I know your arrogance and I know your cruelty. I know your temper and I know your pride. Well, another being has suffered at the hands of those for the last time tonight! Take my curse. Your form shall be, let’s see, as black as the shadows staining your soul until you can find someone to marry you the way you are. I know, a familiar curse but let’s make it interesting. I’ll not be letting you get away with any village maid desperate enough to marry an orangutan for the ring on her finger. No, for you, it’ll have to be a princess. Oh yes, I like that! You’ll have to learn your lesson and probably teach it to another before you’ll ever be free.”

With that, he was gone. Grey stood up slowly. He felt the same. Maybe the little guy was just showboating. Grey looked down at his hand. He wasn’t. His skin was as grey as his name, twisted and corrugated, ribbed with veins and scars and covered from head to toe in long pitch hair. It must be said that it was beautiful black hair but it grew long from most of his body and the effect was more like something from a nightmare than from a barber’s dream. He was in shock. A few seconds mistake and this was the price! It wasn’t fair. He screamed it into the night but no one listened. No fee came back saying that he’d made a mistake. The hand of God didn’t reach down and break the evil curse. Nothing. As dark as the shadows staining his soul he remained.

He was too ashamed to see his mother. While she was out back he snuck in and wrote a foolish note about seeking his fortune. The decency I keep telling you about was in evidence when he left all the days takings for her.

He wondered through the forests and the mountain regions for a long time. He found it better to stay away from towns and roads; people were cruel – cruel with their words, cruel with their fists. Rumours began to fill the kingdom of the grey beast that travelled through the woods devouring children, stealing livestock and somehow becoming responsible for every ill that touched, or was imagined to have touched, anyone’s lives.

“My child, my child has been taken!” – “The beast…he must have eaten her!”

“My sheep is gone!” – “The Beast! His appetite is never sated!”

“My window is broken!” – “The BEAST! He was trying to break in and steal our children!”

“My white sheets were dyed in the wash!” – “THE BEAST! Who else’s work could it be!”

The beast’s fame grew so great that the palace sent out guards to find and destroy him. He ran and hid for who knows how long. Life was pained feet, aching muscles, burning lungs, scratches, open wounds, the snap of hunting dogs’ jaws, sleepless nights on hard floors, cold wet evenings with no fire. He couldn’t keep going as he was. He couldn’t find enough food, he was ill with all the long wet nights, he wasn’t sleeping and he was gathering more wounds with every close shave.

One day, it all came to an end; they tracked him down, cornered him. A sword cut deep into his flesh and he presumed death was imminent. He had only one chance left. He went limp. Released a last breath. Let his eyes roll back into his head. The cry arose, “THE BEAST IS DEAD!” and in that split second of inattention he dragged himself up and ran for the river, throwing himself in and letting it carry him downstream.

A servant girl pulled him out. With trembling hands she pushed him over. He opened his eyes and seeing her face above him waited for the scream, the horror, the disgust he knew was coming. She saw the expectation in his eyes and her gentle heart broke just a little. She swallowed the scream fighting its way up her throat. And so, instead of horror, he saw compassion: a warm smile on a plain face. He groaned and the horror returned to her eyes but all terror of him was gone. “What have they done to you, you poor man?” she whispered. It was the last thing he heard before he fell back into unconsciousness. He had the vague thought that he was glad that he had been allowed to see such kindness one more time before he died.

He didn’t die. She took him back to the hut (and that’s a generous term) which were her quarters in the castle grounds. She wasn’t unaware of herb lore, nor was she entirely without that power which was a rare but not an unheard of gift, and she bound his wounds, healed them, and set to repairing the body broken down by months of flight. She hid him there for weeks as he recovered, laid on the bed, barely moving. She went to her work around the palace with no one the wiser. Whenever she passed the king or his golden and silver princesses she bowed her head and hurried past although she knew she didn’t need to worry. They were far too busy studiously ignoring a lowly serving maid to know she had a secret she was anxious to hide. The other servants paid her no more attention that the illustrious owners of the castle and there was not one moment of fright in all those weeks. No one paid any mind to her adding an extra scrap of food to her meagre share. No one noticed the strain or exhaustion in her eyes. No one saw her traipse into the woods after dusk and a full day’s work to gather the herbs she needed or fetch water or kindling. During those weeks, no one saw her at all. Not even, I’m sorry to say, Grey.

With a return of some measure of comfort, had come his expectation of it. The first wonder at the mere sight of compassion in another’s eyes had disappeared. Hidden away in the safety of the servant’s hut, the agony and the memory of it started to fade and he began not to be thankful for any food, but to notice the scarcity of it; not to be thankful for a roof but to be irritated by the draughts; not to be thankful for someone sacrificing their bed to him but to wonder why they couldn’t have made it a little more comfortable. His heart grumbled within him but at least he had enough decency not to mention it; he had no wish to hurt the poor dab of a female who had taken him in. A plain face framed by mousy hair, hunched shoulders and with the habit of silence the rejected and the unimportant learn to perfect. No, he didn’t want to hurt her or be the one to fulfil the expectation of disdain in those sad little eyes but that was as far as his notice of her went. He was happy as the rest of the world to accept her for his servant with all the invisibility that entails. He couldn’t tell you most of the time whether she was there or not as he lay on his sick bed and she wandered silently in and out. He couldn’t tell you anything about her, probably not even the colour of her eyes and definitely not her name.

Redemption began for Grey on the day he first got up. He pulled himself to the door with the sudden urge for fresh air that is the first real marker of recovery and saw his little helper struggling up the hill lugging a bucket of water. In that moment he began to truly see how much she had done for him and realise how much it had cost her. Despite the distance, he suddenly saw the tiredness in her eyes and the weariness writ large in every line of her body.   He staggered forwards intent on helping her but had forgotten how very weak and unsteady he was. His legs almost gave out. She saw and picked up speed to bustle towards him. Upon reaching him, there was the strangest tussle no man has ever seen. A man, most would have no qualms in calling a hideous beast, wrestling with a comparatively tiny girl over a bucket of water which was rapidly emptying itself. Any watcher might have had their heart in their mouth, fearing for the girl. They would most probably have entered into a state of profound shock at the sight of her, eyes kindling with irritation, cheeks flaming and voice chiding, wrench the bucket from his hands to put on the floor beside them before, hands on hips, ringing a peal over him. Suddenly, she saw the humour in the situation and started a giggle which soon turned into a full laugh.

“Look at me,” she smiled, “fighting with THE BEAST! Oh, take the water, mighty beast and only say you won’t eat me.” Her eyes invited him to laugh along. He couldn’t. She’d called him a beast. Suddenly, every feeling that had faded, all the fear and the agony and the despair came back to remind him who he was now. Her eyes still smiled up into his but questioning this time, the laughter subsiding. Suddenly, he realised he didn’t want to see that laughter dry up, didn’t want to wipe the sudden unaccustomed happiness out of those eyes. She wasn’t laughing at him but inviting him to laugh. Laugh at how this would look to anyone else. Laugh at what it really was. Laugh at how ridiculous that juxtaposition was.

He looked at her very seriously. “Maybe just a finger.” She smiled and set off chuckling again and this time he joined her. It was the awkward, half-unsure laugh of new friends that built into the tension-releasing, full-bodied laugh of a new beginning. They both laughed till they cried and sank exhausted to the grass. ‘Beast’ he remained to her from that day: the word, from her, turning into a shared joke rather than the symbol of his torment.

Over the remaining weeks of his recovery, they became friends. He started to help where he could. He did some elementary cooking and was taught some more when the fifth night of fried potatoes had tested the patience even of his undemanding benefactor. He took on more tasks around the house and when he’d revealed the biggest of his secrets and begged thread and cheap material off her, began the task of transforming the few poor things she kept there (the threadbare covered chair, the worn sheets, the poor clothes she kept) into works of art which, quite literally, took her breath away for a few seconds. He had to guide her in shock to her seat in the newly covered chair and the only words he could get out of her were “Well, I never!” He repaired the few scraps of furniture, the walls, the roof. All of this while keeping out of sight of the palace. Apart from that first day, he hadn’t left the safety of the hut.

Their friendship blossomed and he blossomed. His soul remembered the person he could have been. They talked, read together, made an abortive attempt to learn French, taught each other about herb lore and cooking and thatching and embroidery, they remembered and shared the histories and stories grandparents had passed down. Sometime during all this, he started to remember what was of worth in him –the intelligence, the creativity, the empathy, the strength: all the things he had forgotten. And his soul started to learn the better way that his good heart had always yearned for. He became useful, humble, kind and generous (but he kept his quick temper). And the little servant girl? What did she become? Well, she became happy.

One fateful day, he noticed that there was hardly any firewood left. The little servant girl, she called herself Jane, by the way, had been looking drawn and he decided to take the small risk and help her out by going to the woods for more. From that vantage point, he saw what he had never seen before – exactly where he was. He saw the castle, less than a mile away. In a daze, he collected the firewood and returned to the hut, his mind churning with possibilities and doubts. All day he sat in agonising thought, growing only incrementally closer to a decision with the passing hours. He didn’t notice her return in the gathering twilight and, thinking he spoke only to himself, he reached the conclusion that he had fought all day to deny; the proximity of the castle, the very home of his salvation, was nothing more than that worst of tortures – the inexpressibly bitter sweet mix of hope with the certainty of failure.

“Useless,” he sighed. “It cannot work.”

Quietly her voice answered from where she stood unnoticed a bare few steps away. “What is useless, beast? Is something wrong? Can’t I help you?”

His quick temper got the better of him then. He was angry at himself, angry at his fate, angry at how near and how far his hope was from him and, suddenly, angry at this little helper who, as it seemed to him, was useless to help him in the only thing that really mattered.

“You can’t. You never will be able to. Why must you help me? You can only prolong this, not make it end and that’s all I want! Are you trying to torture me?” His voice rose in anger and then, quieter, barely audible. “You should have let me die.”

“No,” she said simply, but all the horror of the thought in her voice.

“No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.” His temper was perhaps as quick as ever but his conscience was quicker to catch up than it had ever been before. “But why do you help me? ” he questioned. He couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought to ask the question before.

There was a pause. “In the beginning? Well, because you needed help, I suppose. I had to. But now, now we’re friends and what are friends for after all? Tell me. What is useless? Surely, I can help.”

He gave in, the despair was too much for him and he poured it out onto her shoulders.

“And so you see, to break the curse, I need to marry one of the two princesses; the Golden or the Silver, it doesn’t matter. I’m sure they’ll both be overjoyed at the prospect,” He added, sarcastically.

Perhaps I should explain about the princesses. The king of the land had been blessed by a fairy’s promise with any wish he had desired and he had wished for three daughters as beautiful as the three most valuable metals in the land. Gold, Silver and, he hadn’t realised at the time, Iron. The first had been gold with all the accoutrements of the classic fairy tale beauty – hair like spun gold, skin that shone with health and a golden glow, cherry lips…well, you get the picture. The second had been born with hair the colour of silver or the colour of moonlight (depending on how poetic you’re feeling), with the palest porcelain skin, the most fathomless silvery grey eyes… In short, they were both beauties of the first order – unmatched in any kingdom in the realms, probably unmatched in the history of the realms. The story went that when the king and queen realised that the third most precious metal in the kingdom was iron…well, they decided to forego having that child. Iron by no means being the most decorative of metals and whoever heard, or wanted to hear, of a princess who wasn’t beautiful?

When Grey finished his story she looked at him sadly and asked, “Do you not think they could love you for who you are. Beauty isn’t all, you know.”

He scoffed. “Beauty isn’t all! The beast doesn’t get to marry a beauty. Beauty might not be all but it’s a great deal in this world. I can’t expect a princess to marry this!” Perhaps our hero hasn’t yet learnt quite how low a price to put on beauty.

She wrestled with herself for a second and then resolutely got up and disappeared into the back of the hut.

“I can help you,” she said. “This is the makings of a piece of powerful magic.” She held up a hand to silence his instinctive protest. “It’s not a love spell. It makes whoever you give it to see the beauty of the soul reflected in the physical form. Your soul is beautiful, you know. They might not be able to help falling in love with you…” a hesitation “it will at least give you a chance. I have been gathering together the knowledge and ingredients to make this for years. I thought to use it for myself, but your need is greater, I think.” She smiled sadly. He barely noticed. The possibilities of being who he once was almost, but not quite, blinded him to her suffering. He gave her a tentative pat on the shoulder. “You don’t need it, you look…fine,” he said.

“Everyone has different standards,” she answered softly. “The standards of the only person I really need to see me are far too high to be met by this,” she said sadly, tucking her hair behind her ear absentmindedly. “Take it. Take it, choose wisely, and be free.” With that, she left the room. Perhaps, to get more firewood but then, there was already a large pile by the door.

He needed little convincing in the end. Once its use and powers had been explained, he could see no fault to it. Once decided, only two things remained – the first, to choose the princess and the second, for her to issue the final warning.

“The only fault with the spell is that it doesn’t fool mirrors. They only ever see the outside. Anyone seeing you in a mirror will see your true form.”

She took him secretly to the castle, showed him the corridors in the walls which the servants had used in the old days when the sight of them was deemed an offense rather than just irritating and haste was sacrificed to the all-consuming need to spare the eyes of the poor nobles from the horrifying sight of the lower classes. He spent the day watching all that happened in the palace and when she came in the evening he had decided. Both were proud, both were vain, both were self-important and uncaring of those around them. In the end there was nothing to choose between them but their beauty and he decided that he might as well go for gold.

The courtship went as well as he could have dreamed. He snuck in early one morning and successfully mixed the potion ingredients in with the seasoning pots, spoke the words over them and watched satisfied as everyone ate. Jane carefully turned every mirror or reflective surface to a better angle before the first official visit. Then he arrived in impoverished splendour at the palace. He wove a terrible story of attack by a fearsome beast in the forest (everyone else blanched at the news; Jane and he shared a quick amused glance), of fighting for his life, of having nothing but the clothes he stood up in (the fine embroidery on them lending credence to his story) and, of course, his heart which he came to offer to the fairest damsel in all the lands. Said damsel collapsed in a dead fright at this tale of heroism and impassioned love. Jane and Grey quirked an eyebrow each at such drama but Jane’s quickly settled back into place when the first words that golden beauty uttered on recovering from her faint were “Oh, I do, I do…”

The wedding was set with unseemly haste. All his relatives were disposed of with one imaginative sweep of the beast’s claw and, as the king could command any of his people to do whatever he wished within any time frame, there remained no impediment to a swift and fabulously extravagant wedding. The groom did make one, slightly odd, request – no mirrors. He explained it to his future bride, in a state of shock at the mere thought of not being able to preen on an hourly basis, that he objected to the inferior reflection of her matchless beauty in the worthless glass. Quite a neat answer, he thought and he was fairly sure Jane would agree but when he surreptitiously turned round to check his supposition, Jane had slipped off, as silent and unnoticed as she ever had been.

The day of the wedding arrived and with some crafty wording he made sure it was Jane who was sent to wait on him in place of his tragically massacred manservant. He needed a woman’s touch on his hair to forget those strong capable male hands which he had last seen being ripped… at this point, the king was all too happy to stop his explanations and grant his wish. Of course, nothing needed doing. They would see him as they should see him and he could have turned up unwashed with two months of dirt matted in his hair and no one would have thought him anything but the most dashing blade.

Jane insisted on brushing his hair in any case. “We can’t have you turning up like a shaggy dog to your own wedding!” She had declined to take the potion even when he suggested it might make things easier for her. “You’re my friend, not some dashing lothario.   I’m used to being the prettiest in this friendship,” she’d said it with a smile but he hadn’t been sure it was the real answer. As she sat now untangling knots of hair, he asked, “Doesn’t it bother you?”

“What?” she said, absentmindedly, concentrating on a tangle.

“This. Being so close to me. Touching this hair, this coat. Seeing me, so close, as I am.”

“No, your hairs really quite beautiful you know.” She stopped brushing. “I never needed that potion to see the beauty of your soul – even this is beautiful to me,” she said, touching the skin of his hand, tracing a scar with her finger. “This helped make you who you are. You are beautiful so I can’t see it as being anything else.”

He sat in shock and she picked up the brush again and began to hum as she continued with her task. The time passed and finally she put it down. “You’re ready.”

He turned to her. “I know you won’t mind,” he said and pulled her to him for a quick hug. “Thank you,” he whispered and leaned down to kiss her on the forehead. He went to the door. “I wish, I wish you had been a princess.” Without another word, he swept from the room towards his marriage. She tidied everything up slowly, a thoughtful if haunted look on her face, wiped her eyes and followed at a far more sedate pace to stand at the back of the church.

The music swelled up as he came in. The entire population of the castle turned to look at him and he sucked in a nervous breath. Had all of them had the potion? Would anyone see him? No, it seemed he was safe. All he could see were indulgent smiles and a few intakes of breath from the female members of the crowd. His pride puffed up a little but deflated just as quickly. These people reacted to nothing but outward beauty, they understood nothing of the soul – their opinion meant nothing.

He stood and waited for what seemed an eternity at the front of the church. His beautiful bride was late. Of course. Some interminable time later, music once again filtered through the vast space and she came stepping down the aisle, her dress and her veil trailing behind her. Fatefully, one of the bridesmaids managed to accidentally stand on her veil as the bride turned to face her future husband. She hissed in annoyance and it looked like a slap was in store for the unfortunate girl but she remembered herself and where she was just in time before putting out her hand and whispering something urgently. He could see it happening and he couldn’t stop it. Or perhaps he could, who can know now. The princess grabbed the mirror from her handmaiden’s hand and set to adjusting her veil. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the reflection of her groom. With a gasp she turned the mirror so it fully reflected him. “THE BEAST,” she screamed. “He’s come to eat our children!”, she added histrionically. Both her claim and the manner of delivery seemed somewhat over the top to Grey but other people were obviously convinced. Her recognition of him had apparently broken the spell and everyone turned to him in shock and horror and many with murder in their eyes. The guards were the first to move, the men who weren’t cowards were the next and a few of the more fearsome women decided to throw off their gender shackles and leapt into the fray. He couldn’t fight them off and he looked desperately round to say goodbye. He looked into her eyes and instead of the sorrow he was expecting he saw an anger which raged white hot and then suddenly, everything was still. Everything was frozen. Hands in the act of reaching out to him were stopped inches from his body, fists raised to punch were suspended before his eyes, teeth set to gnaw at his ankle were bared hideously and stuck in place on the face of a formerly well-bred and demure Lady Margaret.

“What have you done?” He asked.

“I don’t know,” she answered, shaken. “I just, I just wanted them to stop and they did. I don’t know how long it’ll last. We must go.”

She extricated him from the pile of people and they hurried towards the door, as they reached it the first movements became noticeable from the people in the room and they turned their backs on them and fled.

They ran until dark into the forest. Jane had insisted on collecting essentials from the hut but she knew they couldn’t stay. It was too near the palace, too dangerous; people might start to add two and two together about why he had requested she assist him. When they stopped for the night in the shade of large tree, he sat silent, hunched over, almost invisible in the darkness. She watched him.

“I’m sorry,” she said, finally, hoping to rouse him.

“Sorry? Why?”

“It didn’t work. I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be, Jane, I’m sorry. I was a fool. What was I thinking? To marry one of the terrible two just to get my fairly mediocre looks back. A lifetime of penance for such meagre gain… No. I’m sorry, I’ve cost you everything.”

“But it’s still important to you. I know it is. I failed you.”

“No, Jane, no. I won’t lie. I don’t want to be this forever but…you were right. It made me who I am and I can look in myself today and not feel the need to look away, ashamed or disgusted by what I see. Maybe even I can learn to love this form. Like you do, Jane. Jane, I have nothing really to give you but I’ll give you everything I ever do have. You know Jane, I saw what was so obvious today. I saw that you loved me and I saw how very much I loved you. I’m so sorry for hurting you. Will you marry me, Jane? We can go back to my mother’s village, if she’ll have me. I left only because I was ashamed but if they will take me back, if I did not break her heart, then I think that we need not be afraid there. We can build a life there. We can try. Will you come?”

Jane was more than happy to comply and so they travelled back as secretly as they could. It turned out that Jane was a lot more skilful at that type of thing than he was and they had very few unpleasant incidents. Those that did crop up were, to the amusement of both, mostly dealt with quite advantageously by Jane playing an outrageously over-the-top role as the victim held hostage by the maddened beast and in danger of imminent death if they didn’t just ‘STOP ANGERING HIM!’

When they got back to his village, he stopped nervous at his mother’s door before resolutely knocking. It opened and before his explanations and excuses were half out of his mouth she had thrown herself into his arms, crying and laughing – the only thing important to her being to see him safe and well finally. She was even somewhat pleased to see him in this new form as it weighed in her mind as a slightly lesser evil than the insidious devilry to be found in towns where a young man might seek his fortune and which might suck any headstrong young chap into the path of ruin.

The wedding of Jane and Grey was set for the shortest time possible. Meanwhile, Grey and his mother explained the situation to the village elders who accepted him remarkably easily considering (after the initial stand off and the enforced promises about not eating children, killing maidens and stealing livestock.) He stayed in the stable while Jane took his old room in the house. Before a day was up she and his mother had become friends over the preserves and the prodigal son was relegated without a qualm to the stable while his wife-to-be was treated royally and waited on hand and foot by his own mother. He huffed about this, but good-naturedly, he was happy to see his fiancé cared for.

The day of the wedding was a pleasant spring day and the service had nothing in common with his first attempt at marriage. Everything was simple, except the dress, of course, which, though made of simple material, was covered in both his mother’s and his own best embroidery. There was no booming organ, no glittering jewels, no towering cathedral – nothing superfluous at all. Everyone said it was a lovely wedding and if anyone felt a shudder creep down their spine when they saw the bride kiss the bea…groom – they kept it to themselves.

Then a strange thing happened. The Beast disappeared and in his place stood a young man with slightly over-long black hair and something attractive about his face. Everyone gasped except Jane and Grey. He hadn’t even noticed the change, he was too busy looking into his bride’s eyes. She had been hoping for, if not expecting it.

“Look at your hand Grey,” she said, lifted their joined hands till it was in his eye-line. He breathed in sharply in shock.

“What happened?” he asked.

“I wondered if it might, you know,” she said calmly.

“You’ll have to explain love, I don’t understand.”

“My parents didn’t find out that iron was the third most precious metal in the land…until it was too late.”

“A princess?”

“Yes, Grey, but I don’t want to be, if you don’t mind. I want to just stay here and be your wife. There’s nothing for me there. I didn’t tell you because you only talked about the golden and silver princesses and I thought maybe only they would do… I didn’t want to give you hope if I had to take it away again. And Grey, I really didn’t care which way it turned out… although,” she said with a theatrical sigh, “I have to get used to you being the prettier one now.”

“Never, love. You’re the most beautiful woman I know.” And he sealed his words, and our story, with a kiss.

 

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