Author's Notes: Written for the 50 Alternates challenge and the prompt "bodyguard." I thought I would try a pairing I haven't touched yet: ShinoHina. I know they are a little unusual, and possibly even unpopular, but this is AU and anything can happen!
This fic does take place in England during the same era of the Robin Hood story but it is not based on that tale. Hopefully, it's more historically accurate.
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto and am making no profit from this fan fiction.
A night sky of darkest ink seemed welded to the snow-blanketed earth by a film of silver mist. Within this midst was a single man on horseback, a torch glimmering faintly to signal those seeking him. Had he known this land any less, he would surely have strayed. Even now, he feared that those who he was to meet in this grove of pines would lose their way and be lost to the wild in the low clouds.
Would God allow, the sun would rise hours early and end this forsaken night, he thought as he switched the lit branch to his other hand and flexed his cold-stiffened fingers.
His horse shifted, heat puffing visibly from the two great nostrils and adding to the haze. There was an audible chorus of horseshoes crunching snow, and the rider waited until they were close enough to sound his mental warning bells before calling out to them. "Halt your rides and name yourselves!"
There was a lingering pause, danger coating the hesitation as fully as the winter covered all of England. "Kiba of Inuzuka!" came the response. "And your name?"
A blend of relief and skepticism filled him, as welcome as a hearth's warmth would have been. "Shino of Aburame. Come forward." Another torch was struck and the horses – two of them, Shino could tell, with the steps of something smaller also – advanced until the two lights touched in the air and illuminated the three figures in the grove. Shino held the torch low so that they would see only his forehead from the hood of his cloak.
"Long live King Richard," murmured the taller one, a man whose horse stepped alongside an unusually large canine. "Do not fear discovery, Aburame. My dog, Akamaru, would alert us to danger. We are alone."
The other one on horseback was cloaked nearly as well as Shino, but the slightness and size of her form revealed that it was a woman. Small gloved hands held the reigns of her mare in a grip that trembled – from cold or fright, he was not sure. Shino returned his shadowed eyes to Kiba.
"What of Duke Hyuuga?"
"He lives. His house is well-guarded, but he is concerned for his eldest child, the girl you see here. Lady Hinata will be your charge. I'm sure you realize that, as the King's cousin, she is in treacherous danger." Kiba's jaw tightened with the words. "The Duke's instructions are that you see her Ladyship to the Eastern Gate of London. She will be received by Lady Yuuhi Kurenai, sister-in-law to Chancellor Longchamp, and left in her care.
"The journey itself is deadly, Aburame. Longchamp is unpopular, and Richard as well at present times. With Prince John's supporters acting to elevate him, Lady Hinata's situation is delicate. Dead, she would be a symbol of weakness to those against Richard. Lady Kurenai has your requested sum and will pay it upon Lady Hinata's delivery. Be warned, those who would come to murder Milady would not refrain from killing you also." Kiba's eyes flashed in the light of the torch he held aloft, orange washing over the distinctive red marks upon his cheeks. Shino might have taken him for a Celt if he had not known better. "And should you escape them, know that I, for certain, would complete their task."
Unfazed though he was, Shino took the warning to heart. "Your words tell me only that your need for my service is sincere. I am honored to escort His Highness's cousin."
Kiba did not lower his guard but gave one curt nod. "I will report our meeting to the Duke." He looked at the woman perched on the other horse, reaching out to place a hand on her covered shoulder. Shino could not see her face for the hood, especially when she turned to Kiba. The two made an exchange too softly-spoken for him to hear, but Shino could not help but feel as though the other man had just promised her survival. The expectation was an anvil on his back.
"Away," Kiba said when they were finished. "God speed you, Aburame. Farewell, Milady."
Returned Shino, "Long live King Richard," and he redirected his horse in the way he had come, turning round in his saddle to address his newly-attached charge: "T'would be best if we ran the horses for now, Lady. It is favorable that we put some distance between us and this place of meeting." He reached to the ground and extinguished his torch in the frigid snow.
She did not respond verbally but gave a visible incline of her hooded head, spurring the mare she rode to the side of his stallion. He had been made an excellent rider by his profession, she by her upbringing, and it aided in their haste. Shino worried still, for it was late, a midnight moon rising high and pale over them, and the leafless trees of the forest cast trickster shadows. The Lady could be undone either by fatigue or fright, and he would not be able to look out for enemies and supervise her at the same time. He had to work carefully.
They rode on swiftly for the better part of two hours, Shino looking intermittently to his right to check on the Duke's daughter, but she bore the journey well. It was not until he could no longer feel his fingers clutching his horse's reigns, gloves though they were, that he signaled for them to slow and eventually stop.
The area was more open than he would have liked but with the wind so icy blowing against them, Shino judged it unsafe to attempt another hour. Should the horses collapse, they would invite attack. Hurriedly he lit his torch with the flint in his saddlebags, then motioned for her to dismount. With their feet in the cold, they guided their mounts to the dark shadows of an oak's thick trunk. He held the torch between them.
As though encouraged by the gentle light and heat of the flame, Lady Hinata threw back her hood without warning. Shino stood, stricken.
Her eyes were no darker than the snow in which they stood, color bearing no possible threat to them. The Aburame had heard of the House of Hyuuga's distinctive trait – as the tales went, those posing as relations for the family's wealth had often been imprisoned if they could not produce from their house a body with these same eyes. Awareness, however, did not make her less startling. Her hair, black as his own, granted a stark contrast to both her eyes and the paleness of her skin. The Lady reminded him of the very moon under which they had flown.
"Are we near?"
The present moment flew back to mind as though it had been loosed from a bow, and Shino realized she had spoken her first words to him. After a second's recovery, he shook his still-hooded head. "We've half a night's travel yet, Milady. But we've the distance we need to take things a bit slower once the horses catch their breath."
Hinata touched a hand to her ride's long neck. "We've driven them so very hard," she commented softly. "I do hope they last the night."
Shino had known enough liars and actors in his time in London to realize that Lady Hinata included herself and him in her wish. Staying silent, he reached into his cloak for the flask of mead he had stowed there. Drinking from it, he briefly reveled at the warmth in his empty stomach. He was no stranger to hunger, and the Lady, he trusted, had eaten prior to their meeting.
"Your man, Kiba," he said – because too much silence bothered him in this situation, "is he affiliated with the party supporting King Richard, as the Hyuugas are?"
"Yes," Lady Hinata replied quietly, "all of the Inuzukas are. And my family is heading the country alliance with Chancellor Longchamp. I will only be staying with the Kurenais for a short amount of time. After that, I will go to my cousin's place in London. He will guard me until King Richard returns."
It was more information than Shino needed, but somehow he felt better knowing that plans for her care had been made. It humanized her, made her more than a means to payment. "And Inuzuka…he is your betrothed?"
Bright blooms of pink shone instantly in her cheeks, and he was amused in spite of himself. This woman – girl, really – was obviously sheltered in her noblewoman's life, and talk of union in any form was scarcer in the country than the city. "N-No," she stuttered. "We were childhood friends, K-Kiba and I. I am as yet not promised. My father says a proper suitor has not emerged…"
Strangest yet, Shino felt a mysterious uplift at this, but he said no more. Matters of nobility were not things he was burdened with. But he appreciated, as anyone of lower station would, the refined grace of Lady Hinata.
As though her name in his mind had drawn it, the air between them was abruptly torn, and Shino looked to see an arrow buried, quivering, into the tree trunk at their backs. All of him went on high alert, and he swore under his breath. They had lingered too long!
He dropped the torch and it died as quickly as one of them might have, had the arrow met its mark.
"Quickly, Lady Hinata!" He sped the process by helping her back onto her mare, then vaulted onto his horse's back and led the way out of the clearing. Lady Hinata had not had time to cover her head again and so her ebony hair streamed in the wind behind her. For once Shino was grateful for the dark; dark cloaks, dark horses, dark night. They would only be camouflaged as long as the mist kept up and warded off the moon's revealing light.
He sensed their followers rode horses as well, and Shino fell back behind Lady Hinata to shield her. Arrows came in volleys, some so near they went through the waving hem of his cloak. When they were finally out of range, he pulled up alongside her again.
"We near London!" he yelled to her. Unused to raising his voice, which was already hoarse, it felt like knives slashing his throat. "On my mark, I will join you on your horse to throw them off our trail!"
Her face lost all trace of color, but the Duke's daughter nodded bravely.
"One!" counted Shino.
Around them the world soared, silver and onyx.
The mist was thinning, and the moon grew brighter.
He leapt from his mount and onto hers behind the saddle just as the forest gave way and the many lights of London burst into view. It was as though they raced toward the stars. Shino theorized that their pursuers would surrender if faced with the threat of London's outer guards, and he wrapped one arm around Lady Hinata's waist to steady her before he pulled back on the reigns of the mare. The beast reared, and he leapt down with her in his grasp.
"It will be too slick on the bridge," he explained when she looked at him in shock. "We cannot trust your horse's feet. We must run!" Taking her hand, he half-led, half-pulled her over the wooden bridge, warped from the winter's abuse. The fresh layer of snow gave them some purchase, and the blessed radiance from the high fires of the walls allowed them to see where they stepped.
At last the bridge was crossed, and the aggressive calls and curses that had kept dread lively in Shino's breast now faded into the chilled winds of the night. He kept a hand on Lady Hinata's waist as, breathing heavily, they went to the heavy door of London's Eastern Gate. The hooded man saw belatedly that the large door was already opened somewhat, and in its part stood a high-headed woman bearing dark hair, a noble's posture, and a concerned frown.
"My Lady Kurenai?" Shino asked breathlessly, to be certain.
The older woman gasped. "Yes!" She instantly lifted her arms and held them out to the Hyuuga daughter, and Lady Hinata went to her without wait. "Oh, thank God you've arrived! Dawn will soon come, and I feared the worst… My brave Lady must be exhausted."
Indeed, Hinata looked too tired or too stunned at her own survival to speak.
"I have your price, good Aburame," went on the noblewoman, producing from her fur-lined cloak a purse that clinked with shifting coins when she passed it into Shino's hand. "Fifty pounds to the full. And I offer you a room in my house, should you need it until you've rested."
"Your Ladyship is kind," Shino said with a bow, "but I've a place of my own within the city, and I should very much like to return to it now my work is done."
"As you wish, of course." Lady Kurenai held an arm around Hinata's slim shoulders in a protective, almost maternal way. "And I will get this girl to a fire and a bed before illness befalls her and makes your risk for naught."
"Please." It was Lady Hinata who spoke this time. She gently extricated herself from her new defender's hold and took the few steps back to Shino. Though her traveling cloak hid what was sure to be a magnificent dress, she curtsied there in the snow on the road leading into London. "I wish to thank you, Aburame. Without you, I would have been—"
"Unnecessary," cut in Shino, feeling awkward at once to have a noblewoman bowing to him. "This is unnecessary, Lady. I make my living as I can, doing what small service is possible for my king. To assist his cousin is but the smallest of tasks."
Lady Hinata smiled, and Shino felt something rise within him. Not knowing what it was, he could only despise it, aware somehow that it would only prove itself a nuisance to one of such low rank. "T'was no small task to keep me alive. Mine and my father's gratitude goes with you this night. May your life be only safe now."
He doubted that occurrence, of course, but Shino nodded his respect. "Keep you well, Milady. You are no one's symbol of weakness."
Delicate color blossomed in her face once more, and then she returned to Kurenai. Shino watched them walk into the city before he followed and took a separate path toward the place where his rented rooms were. Once, he felt a pair of moon-like eyes touch his back, yet when he turned to meet them, the Lady Hinata was gone.
Safe, he thought. Alive. But gone.
"Long live King Richard," he said to the loyalist keeper of the inn at which he stayed, leaving one gold piece with him before he took the stairs to his little inch of the world. And long live Lady Hinata Hyuuga.