If I had wings, I would fly to my dear
There was a morning when Loveday went up to the tower room to wake Maria, and again found the bed empty. For a moment, she laughed, expecting the girl to jump out at her from behind the mantle, or step out through the secret door. After the echoes of her laughter had died away, and Maria was still nowhere in sight, her smile faltered. Five minutes later, she was collapsing into Sir Benjamin's arms in a state of panic.
"Loveday, darling, calm yourself," he said, wrapping her up in his arms even as he shooed Digweed away with a look. "What has you in such a state?"
He waited a few moments as she cried into his lapel, before she looked up at him and caught her breath enough to say, "Maria's gone."
"She's probably just gone riding, or run off with your brother again," he said, smiling a little at the thought. "Though I can't believe he'd be here this early. Loveday, please. We'll find her soon enough. Nothing to cry over."
Loveday just shook her head. "Periwinkle's still here," she choked out, burying her face in his shoulder again. "So is Wrolf. And you saw her last night. She could barely keep her eyes open at dinner."
"Maybe she's gone to visit Robin," Benjamin said, pointedly ignoring what Loveday had insinuated. He held her by her shoulders before him at arms length, locking eyes with her. "We will ride to the castle, and ask after her. Panicking will do her no good."
"I know," she said, forcing a smile. "Haven't you told her to at least leave a note when she goes out?"
Benjamin sighed and nodded once, before seeing her smile turn slightly mocking. "I have, and frequently," he said, offering his arm. "But have you ever seen her listen to me?"
Both laughing, though more to cover concern than anything else, they said an absent "Good morning," to Ms. Heliotrope, and walked out to the stables, arm in arm. Atlas and Loveday's horse, Minette, were saddled and leaving the Manor only a few minutes later. Both riders headed in the direction of the DeNoir castle without a word.
The ride was brisk, as it was one of those pleasant days that even though the sun is shining, reminds a person that winter is only a few months away. The leaves hadn't yet turned, but they knew it wouldn't be long before the forest was afire with orange and red foliage. For a few moments, even Loveday let the beauty of the valley distract her from her worries, and smiled genuinely.
When they reached the castle, they were met by a slightly confused and definitely alone Robin, who ran up to his sister and asked, without prelude, "Where's Maria? She didn't come with you?" His eyes were still laughing until Loveday turned to Sir Benjamin.
"We were hoping to find her here, actually," Benjamin said. Robin looked up at him sharply, eyes narrowed, and Benjamin could only try to keep calm as he said, "No one at the Manor has seen her yet this morning."
"So you've lost her, is that it?" the boy asked, his eyes flicking back and forth between the two of them. "She's not here. I haven't seen her in days."
Loveday reached down to hit him gently over the head, knocking his hat askew. "She missed you too, don't worry," she said, smiling knowingly as he rolled his eyes. "Are you busy today as well?"
"I wish I weren't." Robin's hand twitched towards the knife at his belt, and he looked away from the Merryweathers. "I'd be out in the forest looking if I could, but father has me overseeing most of our winter stockpiling. I'll have more time just as the weather gets bad. Tell her I'd like to see her?"
Benjamin nodded, and said, "As soon as we find her. Any ideas as to where she might have gone?"
Robin just shrugged, so they said their goodbyes and let him return to his responsibilities. Benjamin suggested they ask the villagers if they had seen her, but they had barely returned to Moonacre land before a frantic Digweed came racing towards them. "It's the missus, Sir," he said, once he caught up. "She's worked herself up into a right state. Our Miss Maria's gone missing, it seems."
"Yes, Digweed, I know," Benjamin answered crisply. "Loveday, go and tend to Ms. Heliotrope. I'll continue here. Digweed, I'm sure you've other matters to attend to."
The servant bowed quickly, before turning back to the Manor. Loveday gave her husband a long look before turning Minette back as well, leaving him to question the villagers. Upon her return, she found Ms. Heliotrope by the fireplace in hysterics.
"Oh, Loveday, dear," they older woman cried as Loveday walked through the door. "Thank goodness you've returned. It's Maria, you see. I went upstairs to bring her down for lessons, and she wasn't there! She's gone!"
Loveday just took Ms. Heliotrope by the hand, and led her over to one of the of the armchairs. After struggling for a moment to make her sit, Loveday bent down to the woman's eye level, and said, "She will be found, Ms. Heliotrope. Benjamin is out looking for her even now, and she knows her way back. You may scold her all you like when she returns, but unless you want to search on foot, there's nothing we can do."
For the rest of the day, Loveday kept Ms. Heliotrope occupied with whatever she could think of. She let the governess read her poetry, and tried not to wince and her French, and brought her anything in the Manor that might or might not have needed mending. She even praised her needlepoint. However, when Sir Benjamin walked through the door alone, more than an hour after sunset, there was nothing she could do to keep the other woman from nearly making herself ill with worry, and retiring before hearing any news.
"She hasn't come back?" he asked, his voice strained, and he breathed in deeply as Loveday shook her head. "I looked everywhere. Even went into the forest. No one has seen any sign of her."
Loveday took his hand and pulled him though to the kitchen, where Marmaduke was waiting with a dinner for him. "You did all you could," she said, concerned by the way he was avoiding her eyes. "It's not your fault."
"Tomorrow, I'm going back to the castle," he said, grinding his teeth against the words. "We need Robin. He's the only one with a chance of finding her in the forest." He finally turned to look Loveday in the eye as he said, "I only hope your father will..."
"Robin will help," Loveday assured him, smiling a little despite the circumstances. "If it were me, would you let anything keep you from searching?" Benjamin merely fixed an irritated look on her. "He'll help us. Father be damned."
The next morning, Loveday agreed to wait at the Manor with Ms. Heliotrope, who was completely beside herself, while Benjamin retuned to the DeNoir castle. Another clear day had dawned, and he was off as soon as it was light enough to ride. Atlas, as if sensing his master's stress, fairly flew though the forest.
When he rode through the gate, Robin was already running down the path to him, no questions in his expression. "Please tell me you found her," was all he said, but the fear in his eyes made Benjamin think the boy knew exactly why he was back.
"I've asked all over the village, searched every inch of Moonacre land," he said, meeting Robin's dark eyes with what he hoped was a sort of understanding. "I could ride through the forest for weeks and not find her. And that's assuming she's in plain sight."
Before he could even ask for help, Robin had turned back towards the castle and was hollering, "John, Will, take over. Tell Father whatever you have to. I'm needed elsewhere." Then he was fully back with Benjamin, asking, "When was the last time you saw her?"
"Dinner, the evening before last," he replied, taking in the dark circles under the boy's eyes. Clearly, he hadn't slept well either. "She retired early, with a headache, and the next morning her bed was empty. Does that help?"
He shrugged, his eyes drifting away as he thought. "It might," he said. "She wasn't upset about anything?"
"Not to my knowledge." Robin just nodded again, almost absently. "I'll be about," Benjamin said, "If you should need me. And Loveday is at the Manor."
Robin heard him gallop off after a minute or so of silence, but it barely registered. He took off into the forest, thinking he would start from the Moonacre border, even though he doubted Maria would have stayed that close to home and not returned.
About an hour of running later, he found a bit of white lace in one of the bushes near the cave Loveday had stayed in, and took a moment to check there. When it was empty, he returned to the bush, and started in another direction.
He gave up running in favor of a walk later in the morning, and a few hours after that, he let himself sit down on a root. Clearly, this wasn't working. He tried to think, but there was no place he could imagine her running to in the middle of the night. Other than the cliffs by the sea and the few hideouts he'd lead her to, he couldn't think of anywhere she would know of at all in the forest. He let out a frustrated hiss and pushed himself back to his feet.
It wasn't until he walked past a fallen tree, with all its roots pulled out of the ground, that another idea struck him. "No," he breathed, shocked at the thought. "No, she wouldn't have. That's ridiculous." But it was an idea, and he was unfortunately lacking in those. He took off at a jog to his right, kicking himself for forgetting.
When he found the hollow, he realized he'd also forgotten how cramped he'd been. Maria was smaller than him, and she'd had to duck her head. But he found the door easily enough, and pushed it open.
"Maria!" he cried, slouching with the relief of seeing her, lying on the dusty old bed on the other side of the room, wrapped in her nightdress and robe. "What are you doing here? Don't you know how worried we've been?"
She groaned and rolled over, but as he crossed the room he realized she was asleep. A smile touched his lips at the mess of curls and rumpled nightdress, at the leaves in her hair, and he reached out to her before he even realized what he was doing.
"Maria?" he asked, shaking her shoulder a little. "Maria, wake up. You need to go home now." She stirred, shifting about for a moment before looking up at him with bleary, half-lidded eyes. "Crazy princess," he muttered to himself, even as his smile grew wider.
"Robin?" He nodded, sitting down on the bed next to her. "Robin, I couldn't sleep there. It was too...too...Everything was clinging. I had to leave."
His eyes narrowed in confusion, but he let himself run a hand through her curls as she continued to talk. When she mentioned in passing that she was cold, he immediately shrugged out of his jacket and draped it over her. When the back of his hand brushed across her forehead, he started at the heat.
"I'm going to take you home now," he said, interrupting whatever she was saying. "Is that alright, Princess?" She nodded, and he helped her put her arms into his jacket before hoisting her in his arms.
As she settled against his chest, Maria grabbed one end of the red scarf he wore, and smiled to herself. "Little Robin Redbreast," she said as she fiddled with the scarf. "Little Robin Read-Breast, sitting in a tree. Father used to tell me about you. Always running." She looked up at him curiously, and asked, "Is that why Wrolf still scares you?"
"You're delirious," he responded, much more focused on trying to get though the tiny door while carrying her. She giggled a little, and he couldn't help but smile fondly down at her as he managed to navigate the doorway the tunnel out of the tree. "Though I don't suppose that matters to you right now."
She shook her head, blinking against the sunlight as they emerged from the hollow. For a moment, he just stood, looking down at her. Then he shifted her a little bit, so she could curl up and rest her head between against his shoulder, with his too-large jacket shielding her eyes from the afternoon sun.
"Sleep, Princess," he said, as he started back towards Moonacre. "You need your rest."
She shook her head against his collarbone. "Don't want to," she said, and he rolled his eyes again. "I like talking to you too much."
"But you don't know what your saying."
"I thought I did," she said, suddenly questioning. "I was telling you why I left. Wasn't I? Robin?"
He just smiled, and said, "Go to sleep. We can talk once you're well again."
The rest of his walk back to the manor was in silence, and he heard her breathing settle into slow even breaths. Even in three layers, she was tiny for her age, and he could feel her shivering. He found himself unconsciously pulling her closer, hoping to keep her warm.
Loveday met him on the steps of the Manor, and gasped to see Maria. "She's just sleeping," he said, meeting her eyes. "But she's not well."
"Well, bring her inside," Loveday said, opening the door for him and staving off an over-anxious Ms. Heliotrope. "You know where her room is?" Robin just nodded and headed for the stairs, watching Loveday flit about and mutter about Sir Benjamin and the doctor.
Maria's own tiny doorway was another struggle, but without the distraction of her muttering nursery rhymes at him, it was much easier. He laid her down on the bed, leaving her in his jacket and the robe, and pulled the bedclothes up to her neck. He sat on one of the wave-like curves of the bed, just watching her, for a few minutes, not saying anything.
Just as he was about to leave, she stirred again, and pulled the blankets in to her chest. He smiled fondly despite himself as she blinked her eyes open again and looked up at him. "Robin, you're not leaving, are you?"
"No, Princess," he said, sitting back down almost immediately. "I'll stay if you like."
"Please?" He nodded, distracted by the way she seemed almost afraid that he wouldn't stay with her. "It's been so long since I saw you."
He sighed, and when she reached out a hand, he took it, letting her pull him closer and draw his hand into the bunch of blankets. "I'm sorry," he muttered, more for himself than for her. "Father keeps giving me more and more to do."
"Poor little Robin," she said, blinking sadly at him. "Why do you keep saving me?"
The doctor walked through the door with Loveday and Sir Benjamin a moment later, and Robin hadn't answered. He'd had no answer. It was all in his mind, of course, but he kept seeing her on her knees in front of his father, falling backwards off the wall, jumping off the cliff...
She didn't let go of his hand, even when Sir Benjamin had asked him if he needed to go home. He should have said, "yes," forced her to release him, and gone. Father was going to be in a towering rage. But he'd looked down at Maria, hugging his hand as the doctor asked her questions, and shook his head, silently, resigning himself to a night of sitting in the same place.
The doctor had been speaking to Sir Benjamin as he left, and Loveday just smiled in his direction as she left him sitting there. Maria had fallen asleep again, but he leaned down to press a kiss against her hot forehead.
"If I didn't keep you around, who else would love me the way you do?"
Every house in the valley with mirth did resound,
As soon as they heard the lost Lady was found