(A/N) I'm back! Sorry for that, I am currently in England and hardly ever have internet access. But here it is! I'm not sure how speedy updates will be, but I shall give it my best! Love to you all. Reviews are good! Thank you to everyone who has already.
Everything happened in sort of a rush after that, Loveday hurried me into the castle to bathe and eat something. Though she frequently smiled at me, I noticed the thin lines of worry on her smooth face and the uncertainty in her wide eyes. Conan followed at a distance, standing in the door way while I ate and doing a round of the grounds while I took my bath. I was glad that he made no attempt to speak to me, I had nothing to say to him. Nor to anybody.
I tried to keep myself busy, and out of everyone's way, for the lower floor and grounds of the manor were suddenly filled with people. I barely recognised half of them, most were dressed in garments bearing the emblem of house De Noir, a black cockerel with wings raised, or the threadbare sacks that were common to peasants. Kay seemed to be in charge of the rabble, giving orders and organising search parties. I had objected to this at first, why would they be searching for the creature instead of running away from it as fast as they possibly could? But my cries fell on deaf ears, Kay would obey only his lord and master, not some silly little girl with a loud mouth and strong opinions.
At one point, I wondered why this search was not being conducted and organised in the De Noir castle. Surely the Coeur would be more comfortable in his home environment where he sat on the throne, not sir Benjamin. But no one had time to answer my questions. Rian finally gave me some answers, after about three days. He had just come of watch and was obviously exhausted. I saw my chance and struck, bringing him a jug of fresh cool water and a cloth. He smiled gratefully at me and invited me to sit on the steps next to him.
"How's our little princess then?" He frowned at my wince and pulled my hand into his. "Sorry, I didn't mean- But anyway, it's bleeding hot isn't it?"
I smiled and squeezed his hand back. I needed a friend just then.
"Unbearably so. I don't know how you can all do this all day!" I gestured at the men stalking through the trees that surrounded the manor and the group on horseback who had just emerged from the trees, I assumed they were the latest search party.
"We do it because we want the valley to be safe, Maria." He murmured.
"But really, this creature- thing, whatever it is, has only ever come after me hasn't it? No one else has seen it or- Haven't they?"
His grimace told me otherwise. His eyes darted around quickly, checking the vicinity. The only person within ear short was Conan, but he was making a big show of rubbing dirt off the banister.
"Look, your uncle doesn't want you to know this because he doesn't want you to fret, but I know you. You'll keep sniffing around till you find out what you want to know." I smiled. It wasn't said cruelly, in fact it nearly sounded like a compliment. "Silly curious females. But in fact, Maria. People have seen it all over the valley. Nothing major, no attacks or anything, just glimpses of something huge and black moving through the woods. That's why they're all here" He pointed at a family of villagers running back and forth to the well to bring water to the tired men. "They're scared for their families and their live stock. An animal that size could take out a herd on sheep in the blink of an eye. So they've come to your uncle for help."
I gaped at him.
"But- how long has this been going on?"
"A year maybe, first reports were from roughly ten months ago, but they've been on the rise since. Last month there were roughly twenty alleged sightings, though I must say." He paused, "I didn't believe it truly, until you told sir Benjamin. You're no liar, and you'd never heard of the creature until now."
I didn't know what to think. At least I'm not mad, a tiny voice whispered in the back of my mind.
"And why are we here rather than at the castle?"
"He's never been seen anywhere near that end of the valley. No point looking for him there." He said simply, shrugging and finishing off his water.
I hurried on, questions exploding through my mind.
"But why on earth are you searching for it? It's not doing any harm, and it's so big." I squeezed his hand tighter. "What if-"
A loud cough from Conan made me spin around. Kay was striding down the steps, talking quietly to a few men who followed closely behind him. I felt my breath catch in my throat as I realised one of them was Robin.
Kay drew level with me, and was nearly past when he noticed Rian.
"Boy, we need you on the southern perimeter. Are you rested."
Rian nodded, and with one last squeeze of my hand he stood and hurried back up the steps.
I watched him go, anxiety filling my heart. There were so many things I wanted to know. What if they didn't find the creature? How long would the search go on? What would happen to the creature if it was caught?
I sighed and pulled myself to my feet brushing off my skirts. They wouldn't let me help with the water fetching, or the food preparation, which Loveday was overseeing in Marmaduke's stead (apparently he couldn't handle that many people in his beautiful clean kitchen), they wouldn't even let me help with the stitching and sewing of ripped shirts and breeches out on the lawn. Mrs. Heliotrope had insisted that I stay inside and get my rest.
While I had been thinking I hadn't realised that I had wondered to the other side of the manor and was standing just underneath the shade of a huge oak tree.
Hang on a minute.
I backed up slowly and caught sight of the tower and a very familiar window.
"So that's how he gets up there." I said to myself.
Come to think of it, it didn't look all that hard.
The first branch was only slightly higher than my fingers could reach so I had to sort of hop. Missing only by inches, I landed on the side of my boot and jolted my ankle. A flash of pain shot up my leg.
I clenched my teeth and tried again.
"You're doing it wrong." An annoyingly familiar voice pointed out from behind me. My heart jolted.
I swung round to glare at Robin, who just smirked up at me.
"I don't care." I said stubbornly, and probably a little childishly but his grin just widened.
I grasped onto the next branch and attempted to swing my leg a little higher. Unfortunately my hand slipped and I shrieked as I slipped out of the tree and landed, sprawled rather uncomfortably, at Robins feet.
His laughter was loud enough to startle the birds nesting in the nearby trees and send them flying into the sky.
"Where's Conan?" I asked.
The smile slid from his face like water.
"I told him to take a break. I wanted to talk to you."
"You told him too? Or you used your authority as heir to the Coeur to force him?"
He said nothing.
"Why do you hate him?" The question was blunt and took Robin aback.
"Yes you do, don't lie."
"We don't hate each other. Even if we did, it would not matter. The thing that binds us is our devotion to the house of De Noir. It doesn't matter how I feel about him, each of us would both fight to the death to safe the other."
I snorted and turned away.
"I was wondering when you'd show up," I said gruffly, not even bothering to turn around as l clambered to my feet. "Here to tear my whole world from under me again?"
"No," he said, his voice sounding thick, all humour erased. He had never been very good at this, making things right, talking about feelings. He had always thought it was much better to settle things with a knife than with words. "I- I'm here to say I'm sorry, Princess."
The use of my old nickname sent shivers down my spine.
"I don't see why," I said, wrapping my arms around my chest. "I told Conan that I had forgiven you. Didn't he pass it on?"
"Yes, you said," Robin murmured quietly, "but you didn't mean it, which is the more important part, I should think."
I didn't respond, but instead picked at the bark on the tree, leaving him to fill in the gaping silence.
"I let my temper get the better of me," he said, slowly. "What I did, and the things I said... I only said them because... Because I wanted you to be safe. Because whatever is out there could very well hurt you. But you hurt me too Maria. You asked him to protect you." He sighed and clenched his fists. "I just want to know why. Then I'll go. You obviously don't want me here."
What I wanted to say was 'because I wanted to hurt you just as much as you hurt me' but somehow the words sounded foolish and cowardly in my head, and I could not bring myself to say them aloud.
"I don't see why you're so upset" I said again, through gritted teeth, "like I said before, you left me. -"
"I know Princess, I know. Don't you think I regret that every second?" He snapped, anger and pain starting to burn behind his words. "I just wanted you to be safe, if you were with me then I knew that I could not deny you anything. You could have put yourself in so much danger."
"You don't want me to be in danger?" I asked. "Oh that's all well and good. But you leave me alone for months, so distraught that I couldn't even leave my bed, when I needed you to be there more than anything." He flinched and pain darted across his face. "Then expect me to come running to you for protection? Fat chance."
"Well," He said frostily, "it doesn't really matter anymore. You don't need me. I'm done with. Obviously you'd rather spend your time with that lanky-"
"Why can't you just come out and say it?" I demanded, finally turning to face him.
He blinked, completely thrown.
"Say what?" he said.
"Don't be coy," I snarled, trying to keep the tears at bay. "You know what I'm talking about."
He looked utterly nonplussed. I sneered at him.
"You were tired of me weren't you? Tired of the poor little girl tagging along behind you everywhere. It's alright, I understand. You just didn't need to be so cruel." I turned away, the tears streaming down my cheeks now.
He was silent for a few moments. I heard him take a tentative step forward and hugged myself tighter.
"Oh Princess." He murmured, his voice was almost amused. "Is that what you think?"
I took a deep, shuttering breath, and suddenly found myself speechless. I couldn't find the words to fit what I wanted to say, probably because I didn't know what I wanted to say myself. But it seemed like I didn't need to find words, because they were building up in the back of my throat and tumbling out before I could stop them.
"I lost everything," I heard myself say softly. "I don't want to lose you too."
Robin's eyes widened, and then he seemed to melt, his entire body, tensed in an angry, cold stance, sighing. The hostile and threatening look on his face slid away, and he let out a long, slow breath.
"I'm sorry," he said unexpectedly. "I didn't think you cared, or would care about the low class forest boy."
"No," I said meekly. "I've not exactly been forthcoming in how I felt."
"No," He agreed gently. "That you haven't."
We stood there, awkwardly for a moment, and I began to wonder, almost frantically, what I should do. It was so difficult, in these moments of emotion, to know what to do or say, when it should be so obvious. I just stood there, like a stone, feeling closed off and confused, unsure of what to do, or what I wanted to do.
But I didn't have to do anything, because suddenly Robin was there, and his arms were wrapping themselves around me, and he was holding me. My bones went rigid, and I gave a sharp intake of breath, surprised and still unsure, but then, closing my eyes, I let myself go, and found that I was embracing him as well.
He was warm, and smelled of warmth too. A perfume of leather and sweat, of earth and straw and dirt, all mixed together with musk. At first, my nose curled at the strength of the scent, but then I realized that I rather liked it. It reminded me of him, when we first met.
He's still strong, I thought absently, my head against his breast, listening to his wildly beating heart, the strength in his body wrapped around me like some sort of rope or string, and yet... And yet I didn't feel trapped at all. I felt at home.
"You were gone so long," I whispered.
"I know," he said into my hair, the rumbles of his voice pulsing in my ear along with his heartbeat.
"I was afraid I'd forget your face," I admitted.
"I never forgot yours."
"Touching stuff this." A thoroughly bored voice called from behind us.
I panicked and tried to break from Robins embrace, but he held me tight and stroked my hair.
"Conan, not now."
"Robin, yes now. Your father wants to see you. Urgently."
Robin cursed quietly into the top of my head and slowly released me. I resisted the urge to grab him back and never let go.
He took my chin in his hand and looked straight into my eyes.
"Take care of yourself, no more scares like the last time. Don't go anywhere without an escort, don't go into the forest. Princess, will you do this for me?"
All I could do was nod dumbly and he released my chin, pulled me in for one last embrace, then disappeared into the trees.
Conan caught my eye and waggled his brows. I hit him.
But a smile was forming on my face, I had my best friend back. I was being protected. Everything was going to be ok.
Then the screaming started.