His Beauty Preview
“HE’S BEEN GONE TOO LONG, Isla,” Elyse says, bursting into my room with a cloud of anxiety following behind her. She wrings her thin hands together, brown eyes wide with worry. She’s the spitting image of our mother, down to her golden hair and cherubic face, and it brings me back to when I was a girl and Mother would pace back and forth, impatiently waiting for our father to return home.
“I’m sure he’s fine,” I say calmly, reaching for her. She’s only a few years younger than me, but my maternal instinct can’t help but kick in when she’s around. “He’s okay. It’s just taking longer than usual, that’s all.”
“Isla, he left four hours ago. It was supposed to be easy. It’s taken too long. He’s in danger.”
I resist the urge to sigh at her dramatic nature. It would only further upset her, and right now, I just need her to calm down. “Where did he go, anyway? I thought he was just going into town to get food.”
It’s not unusual for our father to spend time in the village a few miles east. Pickpocketing has been a talent of his since before we were born. He’s nimble and unsuspecting, and because of this, he’s managed to give us a somewhat decent life. Not one of luxury, not by any means, but we’re not any closer to poverty. Humble. That’s the word he’s always used to explain our situation.
The two-bedroom cottage doesn’t have a plumbing system indoors, but we have a roof over our heads and food on the table every night. Mostly every night. We’re safe here, and it’s because of him. Mother would always stress herself into a head of gray hair, thinking about all the trouble he could face were he caught by authorities. East Graybrook doesn’t take kindly to thieves, and the punishment is often cruel.
Father’s always managed to provide for us, and to this day, he hasn’t gotten caught.
“He wasn’t going into town,” Elyse says in a shrill voice. “He was going to Highburn.”
My heart sinks to my feet, and I feel my throat grow tight. “No,” I say, shaking my head. No, he wouldn’t go somewhere that dangerous. He wouldn’t risk his life stepping foot on that property. Our father might be reckless, but he’s not a fool. This has to be a misunderstanding.
“He told me he was headed to Highburn Hold. This was supposed to be his last trip. He wanted to make sure we had enough when he…when he…” Elyse chokes up, and her eyes well with tears. She can’t even bring herself to say the words.
“When he dies,” I whisper.
It’s not far off. He’s gotten progressively sicker. Most days, he barely has an appetite. His stomach is killing him; that’s what the physician in East Graybrook told us when we visited two years ago. Ever since then, he’s lost weight, his body growing more and more frail as the days pass. Soon, he’ll shut down entirely, and after that, he’ll be reunited with our mother. I feel the sting of tears prickle my eyes too, but I tilt my head back and sniff hard.
“He’s a damn fool,” I whisper, shaking my head. “He’s going to get himself killed.”
“I shouldn’t have let him go,” Elyse cries. She buries her face in her hands and sobs. “I should have stopped him. I should’ve gone this time.”
“No, Elyse,” I say, grabbing her shoulders. “You went last time. It was his turn.”
“He’s dead. I know he is. I can feel it, Isla. Father was caught by that…that monster. And he’s killed him.”
I can’t believe that. I refuse to believe it. “I’m going to get him back,” I say. Her head snaps up, and she looks at me like I’ve lost my mind.
“Isla, no! You can’t.”
“What am I supposed to do? Leave him out there? What if he just got hurt or something? What if he needs my help?”
She opens her mouth like she wants to argue but closes it, swiping at her tears. “Go find him,” she says, her eyes hardening. “Go find him and bring him home. Please.”
I pull my sister into my arms for a tight hug. “I’ll be back soon. With Father.”
When I pull away, my heart squeezes tight. I can’t let her down. I have to bring him back, or at the very least, find out what’s taken him so long to return. I change into a pair of trousers, boots, and a red cloak and head out to the back of the cottage. There, I open the door to Isabelle’s stable. She lifts her head up at the noise, shuffling in place. It’s as if she knows there’s something wrong. Like she can sense my urgency.
“Belle,” I say, running my hand along her neck. “It’s time to go, sweetheart.” Carefully, I lead her out of the stable and towards the road. Elyse stands by the front door, a shawl wrapped around her body and puffs of air escaping her lips in small clouds. I give her a short nod and mount Isabelle, taking hold of the reins and leading her onto the dirt path.
“Wait up for me,” I tell Elyse.
With a quick gesture, I lead Isabelle down the path, urging her to move faster. The possibilities of my father’s fate race through my mind, and I fight hard to block them out. He’s fine. Then I remember where he is. Highburn Hold.
It’s a cursed castle. I’ve heard stories of the monster that lives within its walls. They say he’s indescribable, a beast full of bloodlust, and a hunger for the souls of the innocent. A nightmare come to life, always on the verge of destroying Graybrook. He’s been whispered about for as long as I can remember, and if even half of what the townspeople say is true, Father is in more danger than ever before.
As we race through the woods, the bitter wind whips at my face and sends my brown hair flying in every direction. I snap my head and clear my vision, squinting as Isabelle darts around a bend and bounds over a fallen tree. She takes me through the harsh river with only a few issues, but when we return to solid ground once more, she’s lightning.
It takes nearly a half hour to arrive outside of Highburn Hold, and when we do, I pull back on the reins and stare up at the towering building. It’s as beautiful as it is terrifying, with snowcapped spires shooting towards the sky and weathered stone walls surrounding it. Movement down below catches my attention, and I see Father’s horse, Gwen, sniffing around.
I hop from Isabelle’s back and carefully ease my way down the shallow cliff towards Gwen. Leading around the wall is a set of footprints that I can only assume to be Father’s. “Hi, darling,” I whisper to the steed, running my fingers through her mane as I gather my courage. “He went this way, didn’t he?”
Gwen gives me a lazy blink and huffs out an answer I can’t understand. There’s no turning back. If Father is here, I have to save him. I adjust the cloak on my shoulders and begin following the footprints. They go on for ages until finally, they stop at a crack in the base of the building. It’s as if the weight of the building has shifted, causing the corner stones to crumble. It’s barely big enough for a person to fit through, and I slip through the hole, grateful to be shielded from the harsh wind.
At least I am in the beginning. When my eyes adjust, and I can see more, I gasp. It’s a dungeon. I’d heard tales of prisoners in Highburn, but I assumed they were just that. There was no way a man could be wicked enough to have something like that in his home. But as I step deeper into the cavernous room, I can clearly make out the three cages lining the far right wall. They’re all empty. All but the last one.
A figure hunches over in a pile of fabric, a small pool of blood snaking off along the stone. I approach tentatively, whispering. “Father?”
I recognize the groan the person lets out. I’ve heard it many times before; when my father’s stomach pains grew too much to bear. When we forced him to eat, even though he felt no need to. He rolls onto his side and looks up at me. His face is bloodied like he’s been beaten.
“Father,” I cry, tears springing to my eyes. “What—what happened to you? Who did this?” I tug on the bars, foolishly hoping that I have enough strength to pry him free. All it does is chill my hands painfully. “I have to get you out,” I say, searching for something, anything that I can use to free him. There has to be a way to break him out.
“Isla?” Father pushes himself from the cement slowly, crawling to the metal bars that imprison him. “What are you doing here? You shouldn’t have come.”
“I couldn’t leave you! I came to bring you home. You should’ve never come here.” I can’t help the anger in my voice. He’s smarter than this. He had to have known the risk of doing something this reckless.
“I needed to protect you and your sister. Provide…when I’m gone.” There’s anguish in his voice, and he shamefully drops his gaze. I fall to my knees before him, holding his hands through the bars.
“You can’t think like that. There’s still plenty of time before that happens, Papa.” When I use that name, the one I stopped using when I was a girl, his gaze rises to mine, and his eyebrows knit together sadly.
“My Isla… I love you. But you have to go. He’s going to come back, and I’d die before I let him hurt you.”
“The Beast of Highburn. The stories are true. They’re true.”
“All of them?”
He must be mistaken. The horrors I’ve heard… The carnage this creature leaves behind in its wake. There’s no way I could possibly leave him to rot in this prison. Not when the only thing standing between us is a locked cell.
“All of them, Isla. Everything you’ve ever heard in town. You have to go.”
I set my jaw. “No.”
Rising from the floor, I reach into my cloak and pull out the dagger I keep close to me at all times. It’s not much, something Elyse swiped for me a few years ago, but it’s gotten me out of more than a few sticky situations. I examine the door to the cell. It’s a simple lock, and hope springs, in my chest. I could break it if I managed to get my dagger in there just right.
“Isla, leave,” Father hisses, but I block him out.
I can do this. I have to do this. I’m bringing him home with me one way or another. I throw my weight into it, trying to snap the lock on the door somehow, but no matter how hard I tug, there’s no give. “Dammit,” I hiss, fighting the urge to scream. The urge to cry. He’s right here, and there’s nothing I can do to save him.
Rage fills me, and I look Father in his eyes. “I’m not leaving you here, do you understand me? You’re getting out of this prison.”
But my hands cramp, and my muscles ache, and no matter how hard I tug and jerk, the door remains locked. He’s so close, but so far away. A sob escapes me, and I throw the dagger aside, collapsing to my knees in front of Father. He reaches his hands forward in mine, lacing our fingers together. His touch makes me want to cry more. I should’ve been able to do this. I promised Elyse that I would.
“Sweetheart, you have to leave me. Please.”
My throat clenches, and I press my forehead to the bars. Just as I start to speak, every hair on the back of my neck stands up.
“What do we have here?”
It’s a voice that belongs to neither of us. It’s rumbling, a low growl spoken through clenched teeth. My heart stops, and the blood in my veins turns to ice water. I spin around to find the source of the voice, and a strangled scream escapes my ragged throat.