It was strange to be there, the glade he often visited, and always alone - but for this time.
It was one of very few dwellings he considered, in a non-possessive way, to be his own.
The forest was always beautiful, even in the dead of winter - but it didn’t capture the imagination or send your heart fluttering the way this place did. It was a small place, and none but a deer would have ever noticed it upon passing through. But the Great Prince knew of it.
He knew, also, that it was from the presence of his curious guest that the surreal sensation was coming from. Never in all his life did he imagine that he could stand beside a human without the threat of death looming over him.Yet there they were, maiden and stag, looking for all the world as if they had known each other their whole lives.
The woman, Belle, drew in a soft breath upon entering the glade. It was dusk, and the visitors were graced with a rare sunset made even more spectacular by a thin veil of clouds. It cast a purplish-grey light about the forest, giving it a somewhat ethereal feel. Crickets began their nightly chorus, and fireflies blinked softly in the thickening shade. A light wind played up, tickling the tops of the trees and sending a light whisper to the inhabitants below, as if to wish them goodnight.
The handsome stag took it in with a silence as calm and serene as the glade, then turned to the woman standing beside him. The wonder and fascination in her face shone even in the fading light. Deep amber eyes that he knew so well lit up with awe, and he couldn’t help chuckling slightly - she beheld the wonder of the glade with the eyes of a fawn, pure and unassuming. He turned his head upward to catch the last dying rays of the sun.
“This glade is one of the most beautiful in the forest,” he said quietly. “I sometimes come here when…” He paused, uncertain. “...When I feel in need of peace.”
She stared at him, her face a mixture of compassion and sorrow. “...Alone?” Her mouth betrayed a small, sad smile.
He nodded, eyes half shut in a contemplation he couldn’t quite keep hidden from her. It was hard to keep anything hidden from her, and deep down he knew there was little use in trying. He knew - they both knew - how painful it was for them to be near each other. Though they tried to hide it, the bittersweet tension was apparent enough to be felt in the air, as if it were humming right alongside the wind. Both wanted to speak, and yet neither quite knew what to say. As Belle opened her mouth, the stag said, “In truth, you’re the first one I’ve ever brought here.”
She smiled, though it was tinged with sadness. She gazed at the stately creature, so majestic and lovely even in his sorrow, and her mind wandered to the memories she had shared with him as a doe. Knowing him was the most beautiful thing that ever happened to her. Getting to know him, spending as much time with him as she had, had changed her. His wisdom and beauty, gentleness and strength, the steady confidence with which he carried his title, his purity and poise...How could she have helped but fall in love with him? And yet it wasn’t these traits alone that had captivated her heart. No indeed, the love she felt came simply from knowing him, being with him, enjoying every moment, big and small.
The stag was lost in his own thoughts as well, reliving much the same thing. He recalled the moment he had first laid eyes on her, and his heart skipped a beat, knowing the joy and turmoil that would follow after. That she had been a human trapped in the form of a doe did nothing to lessen his love for her, and that was perhaps what made everything so hard. He had tried countless times to forget her and rid her from his mind and heart, but she would not leave.
Indeed, nobody knew (and the Great Prince had trouble admitting it even to himself) the pain he had carried with him the day she left. He hadn’t been able to stop thinking about her, and couldn’t even to this day. Her lovely features danced through his dreams, and pained him when he woke.
Presently, he let out a soft sigh and turned to glance at her. She was idly gazing at the forest all around, but her eyes were distant, as if she were reliving something both wonderful and mournful.
He continued to gaze at her, ears folded gently back. He tried recalling the moment that he had fallen in love with her, but he couldn’t. It had happened so gradually, the more time he spent with her and got to know her. She was unlike any doe he’d ever met, or any forest creature for that matter. She possessed all the traits of a well brought-up doe, certainly: kindness, compassion, and patience. Yet, there were traits about her that had initially surprised him, but that in retrospect he found quite charming.
She had the most exquisite imagination. He had found her, more than once, telling stories to a group of fawns who sat with rapt attention.
Once while passing through, he found he couldn’t help but pause and listen to the fantastical tale she was weaving. He couldn’t help wondering, too, where she had heard such stories from, if she didn’t make them up herself. The fawns adored her for it, and it was a rare moment when she was able to escape their eager attention.
He chuckled again in remembrance of so many little fawns surrounding her, leaping about and begging for another story.
She was a unique creature, to be sure. Her extraordinary imagination was tempered with a remarkably keen yet humble wisdom; one that she had continuously surprised him with. Belle was oddly insightful, and yet she never offended or exposed with said insight. Her ability to see into someone’s heart was soothing rather than alarming.
And she had seen into his heart, just as he had seen into hers.
She came out of her reverie and looked him in the eyes, those same eyes he had known so well in her life as one of his kind. He gazed back with the same soft grace he always possessed, and this time their eyes did not part. Both felt as if there were so many words to say, and yet there didn’t seem to be words substantial enough to communicate what they both were feeling. In holding each other’s gaze for so long, they had said everything. They did love each other, truly and deeply, with a purity born out of consummate friendship, understanding, and admiration.
They both knew that though they were of a different species, their hearts beat as one and their souls were united regardless of all differences.
The Great Prince’s outlook on humans had changed drastically since he’d met Belle. Through her, he had learned that there was more to them than the fear and death they inspired in others. Belle had shown him a side to humans that he, for the most part, hadn’t known existed. She had shown him that kindness and love did exist among them, and that not all of them were hunters. Humans were not all bad any more than deer were all good.
Yes, she had changed his views, but even more than that, she had changed his heart.
He loved her. He loved the quiet wisdom she possessed, and that same accentuated a bewitching liveliness and purity. Needless to say she had been a beautiful doe, but her beauty grew the more he had come to understand her. Now, even in her human form, he couldn’t help but think her the most breath-taking creature he had ever seen.
She bowed her head, dark wisps of hair falling over her lovely face. “If I were still a doe -”
He stopped the thought with a gentle nudge of his face against hers, and she couldn’t help but raise her arms to caress his soft fur. She felt tears beginning to sting her eyes, and she held him closer.
“We are what we are, darling. We cannot change that.” He paused and withdrew to gaze at her, eyes deep and calm as the silence in the woods. “But neither will my feelings for you ever change.” He lowered his ears, perhaps feeling a tinge of guilt in admitting this powerful yet undeniable truth. He knew that to confess that he still loved her would only make things more difficult for both of them, and yet both of them had taken the plunge, and there was no turning back.
She wiped a stray tear away, but refused to break their gaze. “And my feelings for you will never change, my friend...” She reached a hand up to caress his face. “My prince…”
His eyes closed at the touch and he bowed his head, leaning into his beloved’s smooth hand.
Belle’s eyes were wet with tears, the deep amber pools quivering with emotion, and still she was the loveliest thing he had ever seen.
They had pledged themselves to each other, and in spite of all that kept them separated, they knew that their love was above it all, providing them with an ever-brightening light in the darkness. What that meant for them, they didn’t yet know. But they vowed to live one day at a time, taking each moment as it came to them, and being grateful in spite of it all that they were able to be in each other’s company. Together, maiden and stag dozed in the calm of the night, and their souls mingled as their forms slept.