AN: Okay so this is an AU (AR?) Maria/Robin Fanfic based somewhat on the fairy-tale "The Singing, Soaring Lark" by the brothers Grimm. Please remember to R&R so I can know if anyone is actually interested in this story or not!
None of the so-called 'mourners' had even seemed to notice Maria Merryweather standing with her small, somber white face staring straight ahead or her silvery-grey eyes blinking causally, not only to blink back a few tears shed in memory of the father she'd barely even known, but also to be sure if she was seeing quite correctly.
For, standing a little ways off from the crowd, leaning against a nearby tree-trunk, stood a bright-eyed boy just her own size and age (which, by the way, was about thirteen or so) with curly brown hair. He had a princely look about him that she'd always liked. She knew this boy pretty well, actually, because he'd come to play with her many times when she was only a very little girl, not much older than a toddler, and they had had many wonderful times together.
Then one day he had gone off and never come back. Strangely enough, no one else seemed to remember him. Her beloved governess, Miss Heliotrope, claimed time and time again that there was no such person, saying the curly-haired boy existed only in her charge's imagination. Which would have made much more sense had Maria been a very imaginative girl. She wasn't, not really-she was more sensible than most grown-ups and was always good at her sums in school. Yet, all the same, none of those precious few who were dear to her would believe her about the boy; so, not wishing to be made fun of, or-worse-thought mad, she kept quiet about it.
Still, she was very glad that he had come back, and resolved to go over and speak to him as soon as the funeral speech was over.
"Maria, child..." Miss Heliotrope gave her elbow a light nudge to remind her that she was to place a flower on her father's grave.
If Maria had been less prideful she might have thought, 'Some father!' and have worn an almost cross look as she dumped the blood-coloured half-bloomed rose on the dead-man's mahogany coffin before it was lowered into the ground. Merryweathers, however, were sort of infamous for being prideful, and such was Maria. She would have allowed no bad talk against her family, whether or not she truly liked them. She hadn't any now, since her father was gone; but that was beside the point.
It was believed that Maria had some warrior-blood in her veins, and that was probably true, for while she was the most lady-like little wisp of a thing you ever saw, she could get a look about her when properly provoked that made a person shiver and thank their lucky stars that she was not a boy. If she had been a boy, not held back by her perfect manners and love of French needle-point, she might have bloodied up a nose or two. So it was very fortunate that she was a girl born without a single tendency towards tree-climbing or roughing about. The world might not have been large enough to hold a person with Maria's senses of honour and pride-most especially pride-if such a person was not a gentle-bred creature who took her tea with her pinky in the air each afternoon.
It was true that her father had rarely been home, that since her mother died when she was little more than a baby, he had wanted nothing at all to do with Maria. He was in the army and would write from time-to-time that he was coming home. When she was younger, the letters had been addressed to Miss Heliotrope instead of to herself, and-barely knowing the tall, imposing man who stormed in demanding to see his child all of a sudden-she would burst into tears. As she got older and Lord Merryweather seemed to think it proper to write directly to her, she would be aware of his visits and prepare herself for the sight of him. She always appeared neatly-pressed, and as she didn't cry anymore, he seemed pleased and left a more generous sum in the bank for Maria's needs.
And now he was gone. Maria dropped the rose, watching it tumble down, making a light thud sound on the wood when it landed. Then she took another one-a bud of rich, deep scarlet on a dark green stem-and placed it on her mother's tombstone. She always secretly wondered what the woman was like but would say nothing about it, fearing that she would somehow offend Miss Heliotrope who had tried so hard to raise the poor motherless toddler that had been thrust into her arms upon her entering her new employer's household.
The boy had disappeared, no chance of going over to him after all, and Maria-grinning and bearing it-masked her disappointment and followed at her governess's side as they walked away from the graveyard. She knew where they were going next; to some official building to hear what her father's will was. Quite frankly, she was a little surprised her father had remembered to write a will out at all, but perhaps it was because he had had as much pride as his daughter and would not be shamed by forgetting something so typical, even in death.
The halls they walked when they were indoors and out of the fresh-air were marble and oak, very fine and solid. Evidently her father's lawyer was a wealthy man.
As she and Miss Heliotrope entered the room upon his bidding, Maria noticed that the lawyer was large, tired-looking, wore speckles that pinched his long hooked nose, and had a large jade ring on one middle finger.
"Ah, Miss Merryweather," He droned absently, glancing up at her with a discerning half-pout. "Sit down, please."
She sat down hastily, placing her hands respectfully in the folds of her long black dress. Miss Heliotrope took the seat at Maria's side and dared to reach out and hold one of her hands between the folds. It made her feel better, so she didn't pull away.
"This being the last will and testament of your father's," he went on, shuffling through some papers on the desk in front of him; "The silverware, the house, the carriage, the pony, the books, and the candlesticks, as well as the paintings, jewelry, and any other items of high-value are to be sold to pay off your father's debts."
"He...he..." stammered Miss Heliotrope, "...he lost the house? Everything?"
"Well, he states he wants Maria to keep her dog and her clothing..." he shuffled some more papers.
Maria thought of her dog, Wiggins, back home-no, back at the house that wasn't hers anymore. She knew her father gambled, but somehow she had not been expecting things to be this extreme. Wiggins, thankfully, would bring in no money. Unlike her pony, he was not a pure-bred creature; half-hound, half-some sort of shaggy black dog that looked more like a miniature bear than a canine. At least she still had him-he would protect her and Miss Heliotrope. It was only too bad that dogs had no ability to give houses to their owners. If her father proved to be as poor a planner as he seemed, in spite of his pride, then she, her governess, and her dog might end up living under a bridge somewhere.
No, prayed Maria, heavens above don't let it come to that!
"But...but...where..." Miss Heliotrope was breathless, sounding only a few short gasps away from a breakdown, "...where will Maria live? Surely he has someone...some relation...surely someone expects to take her..."
"No relation, madam." the lawyer looked grave as he pulled out a certain paper with a dark official stamp imprinted on it. "There is only this; it states that a couple years ago Lord Merryweather met a lion and stole something from him, and so had to promise to give him the first thing that greeted him upon returning home-in his will."
"Wait..." Maria held up her hand, swallowing hard. "Since I've started getting the letters-the letters from Papa-aren't I always the first to greet him?"
"That's right," said the lawyer, clinking his tongue. "Your father states the same thing in this document. It's very absurd, but it's also official and legal, and this place...Moonacre Manor...that he claims to have met the lion at...it does exist. It's in the valley beyond the town of Silverydew. Whether or not your father was mad, or in too many sprits, when he made this out, there is no alternative. Whomever-lion or not-lives at Moonacre manor is now your legal guardian. There is no where else for you to go."
"But a Lion?" gasped Miss Heliotrope in horror, putting a hand to her breasts. "Mercy! Surely there...there must be some mistake."
Maria was very quiet, saying nothing, for she believed it; she knew there was no mistake. She cried a little to herself, thinking that her father had no right to promise her so easily, and without telling her. There really might be a lion, a real wild beast, ready to tear her to pieces at Moonacre when she arrived, and there was no one to help her.
"Maria, I'm sure your father did love you, it's just..." Miss Heliotrope tried to comfort her charge that evening when they were back at the house for their last night there. "...and you know, everybody does have to go out on their own at some point in their...er...lives. And-"
"Miss Heliotrope, I'm fine!" exclaimed Maria, a bit too harshly. Softly she added, "Really."
"Oh...I...I'll leave you to sleep then...Moonacre is sending a carriage in the morning."
Maria curled up into a ball on the bed and murmured, "Lions don't send carriages normally, do they?"
"I suppose not..." the governess blurted awkwardly, hardly knowing what else to say.
"Then there's a chance it isn't really a lion?" Maria whispered, slapping the side of her leg lightly, signaling for Wiggins, who was at the side of the bed watching her, to jump up onto the mattress and keep her company.
"It certainly can't be a real lion, use your good sense, Maria." Miss Heliotrope forced a smile, feeling a little scared herself, though she didn't really believe it was a lion. "Probably it's only someone as brave as a lion, and your father knew..."
"...knew he would take care of us?" Maria guessed, not really believing that, comforting as the thought was.
"Yes, that's it, it must be." said Miss Heliotrope. "Goodnight, dear one."
The next morning, Maria awoke, washed her face, and brushed her long reddish hair, fastening the curls back with a neat blue ribbon. She donned a simple, puff-sleeved, silver-blue taffeta frock and brushed Wiggins thick black fur to make sure he was presentable.
"Miss Heliotrope," said the frightened child as an afterthought when most of the packing was done. "If there is a lion after all, you don't think he would eat Wiggins, do you?"
Miss Heliotrope was caught between wanting to soothe her dear Maria's fears and her true option, which was that Wiggins, large as he was, was probably naught but a snack to a wild lion.
There probably was no lion anyhow, but she would not lie and she could not tell her charge the truth, so she simply stated, very diplomatically, "Wiggins is very brave."
"You're right about that," said Maria, proud of her dog. "Surely you remember the time he very nearly saved Robin and me in the park that day when you had gone to fix your bonnet...and he was only a puppy then!"
Miss Heliotrope was taken aback. "Who is Robin?"
Maria rolled her eyes; she had forgotten for the moment about her governess not believing in him. "He was my friend when I was little; his name is Robin, and he is bright and looks sort of like a robin, actually. It suits him."
"Ah yes," sighed Miss Heliotrope, humouringly. "That strange imaginary playmate of yours! You were such a queer little thing in those days, Maria, but you've grown nicely."
Maria sighed, kissed Miss Heliotrope's cheek, and went outside to say good-bye to the household servants. Formally, she curtsied and shook a hand or two, remembering only a few names of those she was leaving behind.
"Yes, yes, goodbye!" Miss Heliotrope, distrustful of most of her fellow-workers, huffed out quick farewells and ordered the footman to take her clothing trunk down to the carriage Moonacre had sent.
"Oh, Miss Heliotrope, you'll come with me?" cried Maria, filled with joy.
"Maria, I have been looking after you since you were a baby, and I am not going to abandon you now!" her governess told her sternly. "If you're going to live with some so-called lion in the god-forsaken countryside, then I shall be there with you."
The Moonacre coachman was a gnome-like chap called Digweed, and he bowed to them, saying, "You'll be Miss Maria Merryweather, then?"
"Yes, that's me." It was at the tip of her tongue to ask if his master was really a lion, but she bit it back, feeling a little shy.
"That'll be your maid and dog, then?" His wizened-almost dwarfish-face turned down at Wiggins and Miss Heliotrope.
"Governess," Maria corrected, smiling and stroking her dog's head. "And this is my Wiggins."
"Pleased to meet you." said Digweed to the dog.
Without further ado they got into the carriage and it took off.
The first few hours of the journey were delightful; just going around the familiar London roads Maria knew so well. Once she even saw someone she knew and waved, but they snubbed her because her father was dead and she wasn't rich anymore.
"Pay them no mind, Maria!" hissed Miss Heliotrope, indignantly. "You're a finer breed than they are-you've got warrior princess in your blood!"
"How do you know that?" Maria asked, arching a brow.
"Because," said Miss Heliotrope in a dead-serious tone, her face thoroughly somber without so much as a hint of humour playing around her mouth, "when you were a child, I had endless troubles getting you to eat rice pudding. So there!"
Maria didn't giggle, as most girls might have, but she did smile and lift her white ermine-fur muff to her mouth to hide it, pretending to stifle a yawn.
"Poor thing," sighed Miss Heliotrope, "how tired you are!"
Wiggins snorted, but Maria looked very hard at him, and he looked down, ashamed.
Things got harder when the roads were no longer paved, but rather pure dirt and filled with potholes.
By the carriage's fifth near-collision with what Digweed called, "An inconvenience, then" and Miss Heliotrope referred to as, "A beastly gaping hollow in the path", Maria thought she might be sick.
"Oh, I've a perfect knot in my stomach!"
"Maria, dear child, there is only one thing that can save us now." Miss Heliotrope told her, running her fingers along the spine of the French book she had been trying-in vain-to read during the journey.
"And what is that?"
"Classical French needle-point!" she pulled out two pieces of cloth and a small box of needles and thread from her copper-clasp purse.
"But..." protested Maria, thinking it too good to be true, "I thought you said we only sewed on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays."
"This," her governess said gravely, grimacing, "is a special emergency."
Maria nodded and got to work. At least she wouldn't have to think of anything beyond the thread in her hands and keeping count of the stitches; she didn't have to think of her father's betrayal just then, nor the lion waiting for her at Moonacre.
AN: That's all for the first chapter...you want more? Then PLEASE REVIEW.