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The Black Robin
Author's note: It still needs some tweaking, so don't hesitant to comment.
A man in his early twenties sits down wearily. Even though there is a festive air everywhere else, he can’t seem to enjoy anything right now; not his overstuffed red cushions on its golden throne or the beautiful white marble room with its strip of red carpet connecting him to his subjects. Even his crown was off; its fire reds and sea blues seem to have dulled. It didn’t set right on his head.
He usually had a smile that lit up the room and looked like he was in the middle of a wonderful joke, but his usual joyful expression is hidden by a look of annoyed worry. Arai had run off again. He knew she could be quite the wild girl, but she never seems to think of how much trouble it was when she leaves the castle.
“You called, Your Majesty?” The captain of his guard is only a plain man by looks; his peasant exterior hid his lean strength and array of weapons.
“Arai has gone into the woods again. Take a group of men in after her, and when you find her, escort her back to me.”
The captain left in such a hurry that his top robe flew back enough to reveal a previously concealed knife. The metal doors slammed behind him, leaving his king to worry alone.
He knew it was his fault she had disappeared. Arai was like an unexpected gift; he shouldn’t have upset her by telling her of his plans until he knew she was ready. Thinking he knew what was best for her, he had pressured her too much.
The crunching of soldiers’ boots on leaves far below her, warns Arai to be quieter. Just one loud creak could alert them of her presence. Otherwise she should be fine, well hidden. Adults could be so stupid; no one ever looked up, especially not the numbskulls her father sent after her.
Even so….. Arai bit the inside of her cherry lip, any raven black haired girl running around the treetops in a frilly, petal pink dress would be conspicuous. If one of the hired men grew enough of a brain to look up or she jumped onto a branch wrong, her freedom would come to an abrupt end. She tries brushing away her fears; she was as at home in trees as her mother was during one of her dreadful tea parties. Hadn’t her favorite past time been to visit the birds nests in her mother’s orchards? Couldn’t she, by age six, travel across those same orchards without touching the ground or being detected by Mother’s tea parties as she passed by them? She’s not such a klutz as to snap a twig. She can stay concealed even with the pink dress.
The footsteps move away, but she keeps going; another group would be coming through at any moment.
The momentary forest hush causes Arai’s thought to wander. She wonders what her father told those men combing the woods. Do the think her a helpless maiden waiting to be rescued from the fears of being lost? A king would never tell his subjects that his only daughter has run away, especially when he had lied so much about her childhood.
They should have the right to know about their princess, about the odd birthmark on her shoulder blades that so affected her life. It shouldn’t have been hidden; all the times she would coax birds to play with her, bring a newborn bird to her mother, or even find all the pieces of an eggshell for her collection. Her subjects should’ve been allowed to know more about her.
Even if her father hadn’t covered up a majority of her childhood, he would never tell those who hunted her that she had ran from him. It would bring him too many difficulties if anyone else knew what she had screamed at him – that she didn’t care who it was to, she was NOT going to get engaged at age ten. So she left. She flew through her mother’s orchards to reach the woods.
Those woods were getting darker now, and almost even more solemn if that was possible. Arai slowed to a stop, her olive eyes darting around, searching for the next branch. It is farther than she is used to jumping, but she is sure she can make it. A short running jump and she’s in the air between.
It looks like she’s going to make it, if only she can gain a few more inches; she’s going to fall short. In the instant of the adrenaline rush (and a light rain of feathers) dark wings appeared out of her back.
She flaps them like crazy, but they aren’t strong enough to win against gravity. Arai feels herself falling, faster and faster as exhaustion starts taking over.
The impact with the ground knocks her unconscious instantly. Her now crooked wings dissolve into black wisps, starting at the tips going inwards until the base is gone, leaving her birthmark as the only indication wings had been there.
Five minutes later, a man comes out of the brush and examines her, just to disappear back into the tree line. He shortly returns with two younger men and what looks to be a make-shift stretcher. Laying her carefully onto the stretcher, the two teens then pick it up, and the three men disappear the way the came with Arai now cradled in the sling.
The brook bubbles in Arai’s ears as she seeps in the beautiful day’s sunshine. Over eight years have passed since she escaped from that castle her parents called home. She can’t figure out why she hadn’t left sooner; everything she ever wanted she had found in these woods.
The people who had rescued her were her family now. They had raised her, made her who she was. When they had found her, they had thought her to be sent by angels. They said she had fallen from heaven, which was true enough; she HAD fallen, and if heaven is paradise then the treetops are her version of heaven.
Arai fingered the dress made for her by the women of her chosen family. She had many brothers and sisters in the community, something she could’ve only dreamed of before. And then there was the community’s own mother hen, “Ma,” who had been a better mother than her actual mother.
“Lady Arai, it’s almost midday.” Of course one mustn’t forget Sarah. “Lady” Arai saved her from…. let’s just say an “unpleasant occupation,” so Sarah worked as a sort of assistant now. At the moment she was trying to find a dry, level place to set down the wicker basket draped over her left arm.
The aroma of fresh baked bread and smoked venison, intensified by the summer heat, draws Arai out of her daydreams.
The day is nearing its end; the small carriage entourage is weary of having to use the rest of the daylight on getting through the large forest between them and the rest stop. Even the stagecoach’s creaking protests attest to its own unwillingness to entering the woods at such a waning hour. The forest is rumored to be fierce bandit territory, and what they are transporting can be considered well worth tenfold the meager pounds of solid gold coins they carry as well. Hoping their seemingly poor shape is enough to deter any thieves, the caravan creeps along the road.
Just as their caution starts to waver, a single arrow shoots from high above and deep in the tree line to a hand’s length of the coach driver. All the soldiers instantly reach for their swords, but a whispered voice stops them.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.” As each of them looks around searching for the phantom man who spoke into their ear, they realize that they are surrounded and out-numbered. Every face in the bandits’ ranks are hidden by shadows, so even when the speaker demands “a small toll”, he can’t be identified.
A stocky soldier goes to the carriage, where there are brief murmurs before he returns with a substantial bag of gold. One of the more stout bandits breaks the tree cover completely to retrieve the fee. As he reaches for it, the soldier takes him hostage at knifepoint. Everyone freezes but the helpful whispering voice is heard again.
“You might want to look up.” The carriage’s escort looks to see a cloaked figures’ deadly arrow aimed at the offending soldier’s heart.
Someone in the carriage must have seen the dangerous delicacy of the situation, as a stern voice from within it tells “Rupert” to stop causing trouble.
As the prisoner is released with the loot, the archer moves its aim to the carriage. The released arrow thunks half-way up the door with a leaf caught during its trajectory. The guards are instantly on defensive, but hopefully the parting words from the phantom voice of the bandit gang eases their nerves.
“Keep the arrows until you leave the forest; it shows that you are under the Robin’s protection.”
Fifteen minutes from the edge of the forest, a spooked deer charges towards the travelers. The guard they had unknowingly hired, the Robin, spots it first. Before the normal guards can draw their swords, the arrow whistles past them and into the deer. The ploy to rob the carriage reeks of those thieving twins; had they not seen the arrow or were they openly challenging the Robin’s authority? It didn’t matter; they had gotten the message that time.
If need be, they will be dealt with accordingly.
The job now completed, the Robin creeps through the tunnels, following the smell of food deeper and higher into the mountains. The figure comes to a doorway covered by lavish curtains; inside can be heard someone humming a graceful tune over a meal. The Robin quietly brushes the curtain aside and slinks into the room. Sarah hears the faint rustling.
“Is that you, miss?” She doesn’t bother turning around.
“Yes, Sarah,” the Robin says as she pulls back her hood to reveal the black waves of hair previously confined within.
Arai hangs up her burlap hooded cloak before sitting down to supper.
After supper, Arai excuses herself; she has one last late night commitment before she can rest for the night. Back into the labyrinth she retraces her steps until almost halfway to the entrance. Here she turns down a different passage. Soon she is at the doorway Arai wants.
She remembers the first time she saw this door. It was the day before her eleventh birthday, and Arai was lost in the caves, again. That is, until she heard the voices. She followed the noise to this very opening. She had meant to ask for directions, so she didn’t know what made her sneak in instead. There was no way to describe the scene Arai found; sure she had known that many of her new family were bandits, but it hadn’t clicked until the moment she saw the treasures.
No one in the group of men arguing at the far side noticed Arai in the shadows cast by their single candle lit between them. And then she saw it- an emerald necklace just like the one her mother refused to buy her from that merchant two years ago. Arai slipped deeper into the room and pocketed it, slipping right back out without anyone noticing. She retraced her steps a short distance to the last fork and then started running back to the bandits’ meeting.
“Papa Joe?! I got lost again! Papa Joe?! Where are you?” Arai wailed over and over again as she ran to the room she had just left. Hearing the commotion, the men filed into the tunnel where Arai ran into the arms of the eldest.
“Oh, Papa Joe, it felt as if I’d been wandering around for hours before I heard your voices!” And, of course, he would have brought her back to her cavern off of “Ma’s” home, if things had gone as Arai had planned. But at that moment Arai’s secret fell out of her pocket.
Their initial response was one of fury towards the necklace thief, but that anger turned to astonishment at their prodigy. With the new special training, she was able to outmaneuver and outshoot almost any grown man by age thirteen.
Arai walks through the life-changing door way into the loot room. It is going to be a very long night.
Arai lounges at the head of her squad. Her system of loot division is much more fair and organized than other gangs’. Normally she would gain all profits and then pay her group what she saw fair in the plunder they wanted, but right now she is having to assuage one of the arguments that the system is suppose to be preventing.
“Fine, if you’re just going to squabble over it, then neither of you will get it!” Arai’s need for sleep is starting to break through her layers of niceties; the bickering isn’t helping much either.
When Arai finally heads to her cave shared with Sarah, it is much past any sane person’s bedtime. She barely makes it to her cot before collapsing in an exhausted heap. Even so, it is a while before she starts dozing off, the chirping of crickets as her lullaby.
That’s one aspect both Sarah and Arai love about their executive suite; it has an exterior entrance to their very own enclosed glade. The entrance is framed by lush vegetation, and if you look high enough, you can see the distant mountains from that exclusive access. Not too far from the entry is a cascading waterfall and lake with its stream tumbling farther down the mountain. Oh, how beautiful it always looks in any light with all the various trees, plants and animals; one might think it the setting of a fairy tale. Even after all these years, the view could still take Arai’s breath away at times.
Arai finally drifts off to sleep to relaxing thoughts of her beautiful woods.
The creek gurgles in Arai’s ears as she absorbs in the gorgeous day’s sunbeams. On any day with less of a late-nighter before it, Arai would have been up early enough to watch the sunrise. Today she had to settle for the mid-morning sunshine.
Mornings always make Arai’s life seem so peaceful and easy. She thinks about the day’s responsibilities; her crew is on hunting duty today and will not be allowed to “guard” tonight. Well, it could be worse, Arai actually likes hunting a lot; it tests and strengthens her skills.
Just a little longer, and then she’ll get started with her day, just a little more time in her illusion of paradise.
Cross from tree to tree, feeling free of all but the now, my hunt is going well. The deer that I caught unaware is staggering on against the impossible a little ways ahead of me. Jumping a branch, I catch up to the deer as it is brought to its knees. I can see that its hope has faded away during the chase and it has stopped fighting for life. I end the suffering and carry what was once a deer to the community larder for preparing. That deer makes it ninety-nine that I’ve killed this year.
I know this mountain area I’m climbing better than anywhere else. If I had been forced to go one more day without hunting here, I may have gone crazy. Hunting is kind of like a day off for me; I hang out in the woods and slay an animal once in a while to bring back to the kitchens. I won’t stop hunting just because I’m a girl either. There are those who say men are the dominant race; it’s those people who can’t keep me in “my place.” To those closed minds, I’d like to point out that I’m not typical; I’m tougher then most and could probably beat anyone who has any objections to where “my place” really is- working along side the men, with my crew.
“Arai, I’m so glad to see you! How’s the hunt going? Wow, that’s a lot of venison!” Matthew, the head chef, is always happy to see me, because I bring in so much raw cooking materials. He never knows when to just shut up. But lucky the small talk only lasts as long as it takes me to carry the deer inside, which isn’t long. Then I am free to roam the wood, a threat only to targets of my deadly bow.
I start heading to my forest retreat, that is, this secret clearing ringed by ancient trees that I haven’t even told Sarah about. My back has stated bugging me again and the only cure I have found is there. No one is tailing me, so I flee there quickly and shimmy through the only weakness in the tree line, over halfway up one especially old tree.
The instant I’m safely within, I release my wings. Keeping my wings a secret may be a smart choice but oh, is it a pain in the neck (or back in my case) at times. You’re probably wondering what the others know of me; they’ve guessed that I’m no commoner and that I’m running from something, but I won’t tell them anything, so there’s not much they can do.
That cure I was talking about- partly it is just letting the wings out, but the other part is the circular pond, twice a man’s height across, in the center of the clearing. As I slip into the pond, I can almost feel the filth and loose feathers rushing off. After I’ve washed off the stress that has accumulated since I was last here, I collect any feathers that are floating in the seemingly always pure water.
As my therapy session is wrapping up, I glide out of my secret paradise towards home. I snag a pheasant as my last catch of the day before arriving at the cavern entrance.
*I’m eight again. I’m playing in a garden. My short, blonde hair blows in a light breeze. Someone else is there with me, a girl of the same age as me. We’re playing tag; I’m “it,” but I can’t find her. I chase glimpses of flowing black hair and her tinkling laughter void of direction. At some point, the garden has become a forest, and we have aged ten years. Still I’m chasing her. She leads me to a clearing, but when I get there, no one is there, just a onyx bird.*
I wake up to multiple servants preparing for my morning. I creep over to my window seat, hoping none of the overly busy people notice that I’m up. Looking out the window so high up, the world appears so vast.
I imagine it is a similar view as the one seen by that fairytale princess, the solitary individual locked in a doorless tower. I can relate to her, imprisoned in the same life: always the same, never new. Except I’m not the fairytale princess or the damsel-in-distress; I’m the prince. I’m supposed to be the hero, the warrior, the adventurer, but really I’m just a pampered prince: who can’t do anything for himself, is barely allowed outside of safety, let alone go on an adventure, and who attracts weirdos.
You think I’m kidding, but many of the ladies I court are pretty odd. (Though technically I’m already engaged, but since we haven’t heard from her in many years, my parents require me to keep courting.)
It was going well with Cassandra- that is until she decided to show off her collection of previous courters’ hair. Mary would have been interesting to talk to, if she talked with anyone other than herself. Caroline was nice, with the exception of her reason for liking me- my toe nails are smooth; seems she has a thing for well manicured fingers and toes. Isabella is obsessed with our “shiny” mirrors, and her twin sister is such a klutz that, after not-so-safely making it to her seat, she usually slips off her chair before dessert, breaking bones and dishes in the process.
Not to say everyone around me is weird, but something always seems to happen to the normal people: mysterious deaths, sudden marriages, unexpected moves, etc. Maybe I should get a bard to write my story; they could call it “the Prince’s Curse.” But no one must find out about the first time I met Natalie, who I thought was the newest lady of the court. It got my hopes up that I may have broken my streak of bad luck. But, though I was right that she was new to the court, she turned out to be my sisters’ new nanny. It was definitely one of the most embarrassing mistakes of my life.
“Prince Zephaniah, you have a very busy schedule today, and it’s time to get ready.” Lost in thought, my steward, Timothy, interrupts my musings. I look up at him, not bothering to hide the half-asleep look in my eyes. “Breakfast in your chambers it is, Sire.” That’s what I like about having a steward like Timothy- he’s such a mind reader.
Once I have eaten, the rest of the servants in my chamber acknowledge that I’m conscious. Of course they already knew I was up and around, but over the years we’ve developed an understanding that results in me being able to walk around my room without being weighed down by the serving of hand and foot. Once Timothy comes to prepare me for my day, I’m officially “awake.” And that’s when the nightmare starts.
First there are the ridiculous cloths I’m put in; I’ve seen less frilly, less exotic and more practical outfits worn by ladies of the court. I’m not one of my sisters’ dolls and I don’t like dressing like one, but that’s never mattered. They still add even more lace to each new outfit, still cover ever inch of skin below the chin. Anyone could be in this casing and, given that they wore a similar face, no one could tell.
Just as I finish donning today’s skin, I hear the giggles of a silver lining and then they run in.
“Oniisan!” I turn around to catch Lucy in one of her falling-into-you hugs and Samantha is right behind her. These girls, my little sisters, are the only reason I stick with this lurid life. As long as I act the pampered prince, I act as shield for them from the misery of heir to the throne. My sisters must never become political pawns.
“…When Edmond had lived 52 years, he became the father of Arthur. After he became the father of Arthur, Edmond lived 104 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Edmond lived a total of 114 years, and then he died.
When Arthur had lived 45 years, he became the father of Rehoboam. After he became the father of Rehoboam, Arthur lived 100 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Arthur lived a total of 108 years, and then he died….”
A fly keeps buzzing around my head. I don’t know how the tutor expects me to stay awake, much less concentrate on his lessons on every major and minor event concerning the royal family in the last ten hundred years. Only the promise of escape with my chestnut horse, Amber, this afternoon for a few hours, can get me though such lessons these days.
The fencing and archery lessons weren’t so bad today, but the military strategy lessons after were horrendous. How much more can one person cram into a daily schedule; it’s not even noon yet. At least after lunch, I will get a bit of time to myself before reassuming the mantel of prince.
The rustling of wind through leaves brushes over my ears. The field Amber and I have retreated to with lunch is perfect for our purpose: secluded and shaded, but open and sunny, and there’s even river. No one will come across us here; we can finally relax. I found this location last year and come here whenever I can now. To just sit here, listening to the music makes all the hardships of life bearable, not to mention that they seems wash away in the current of symphonies of the wind.
Sometimes when I listen, it sounds as if the most alluring woman is singing a lullaby just for me. If she were to appear to me, I would have eyes for no other, no matter how long I lived. But my fantasy lady by no means ever materializes. Not that I expect her to exist, but….. I can still wish, can’t I?
I gaze at the clouds, just loosing myself in the sky. “Where’d you go? I can’t find you! Please come out, I’ve got to go home now!” I don’t remember anything about my fiancé outside of what my dreaming mind sees. Wouldn’t that be tragic, marrying someone you don’t remember anything about? Well, betrothed or not, my life can’t go much more downhill, can it? At the same time not much could make it any more wonderful.
My mind starts to wonder even more as my eyelids close their doors to the outside. The warmth of the sun acts as the last key to the dreaming world beneath.