“My lady, I applaud your bravery. You must be one of the few willing to chance using this road anymore” the voice of Sir Gaston came from somewhere outside her carriage, though the beauty comfortably settled inside barely paid him any attention, enthralled as she was with the leather-bound book in her hands.
“Well, Sir Gaston, I was not about to let some heartless ruffian control my travelling plans. This is the shortest path to the Great Monastery’s library, so I will make use of it, highwayman or not”
The knight smiled, his general look speaking of physical prowess but very little intellect. He slowed down his mount to be able to ride near her window and she rolled her eyes discreetly from behind the book before the carriage lurched to a stop and the driver shouted in alarm.
“Finally” she whispered, a secret smile curling about her lips as she heard Sir Gaston unsheathe his sword. She placed the book down, marking her page with care as she heard a sound that caused delightful little shivers to dance up and down her spine.
“Well, well, what do we have here?” an accented voice teased the guards posted on the sides of the carriage “A flighty little lady carelessly making her way through the dark, dangerous woods. Oh, what a foolish idea, dearie”
She knew without chancing to look outside, that the voice spoke to Gaston, who puffed up like some sort of bird and charged blindly forward. There were sounds of struggle followed by some shouts from the knights and more scuffling sounds till silence, for a moment, returned.
“Untie me, you fiend” Gaston’s booming voice sounded angry and embarrassed at the same time.
“I rather think not, dearie” the hooded figure that Belle could make out by peaking out the window turned away from the helpless knights, all tied to a sturdy tree but only the tall, dark-haired one actually conscious.
“When I find out who you are, you scoundrel, you’ll be hanged for this” he struggled against the rope binding him to no avail “And stay away from the Lady Belle if you have any decency!”
The dark stranger laughed, head thrown back and hood falling to reveal a masked face, the black cloth covering his head an upper face.
“Decency? Lad, you should know by now that I have no such thing. And now, if you’ll excuse me, there is a ripe young lady with plenty of… treasures to plunder”
The thief turned on his heel, and was able to catch a glimpse of a blue dress and green cloak before they dissapeared into the forest.
“Well, it seems the lady wishes to lead me on a merry chase in order to get my hands on her precious baubles. Oh, well, let’s indulge the little bird, there’s no harm in it”
Quick on his feet the wanted man known simply as “The Dark One” broke into a run, his cloak fluttering behind him as he easily trailed the noblewoman through the forest. When he finally caught up with her he saw her cloak helplessly tangled on the branches of a tree, and the lady using a dagger to cut the fastenings keeping the garment tied around her neck.
“Oh, the little bird has gotten herself trapped” he crooned, getting close enough to the woman to gently pull the hood of her cape back, her brunette curls tumbling down her back “Shh, little one, don’t struggle so. You’ll hurt your pretty wings”
Belle twisted and turned in the man’s arms, managing to make a thin slash on the right side of his neck, just beneath his jaw and force him to step away, a smirk on his face.
“Oh, but this is not a bird at all. It’s a kitten, with pretty little claws”
“You knew that already” Belle hissed, her eyes narrowed and focused solely on him.
“Ah, yes, Lord Maurice’s daughter” he caressed the side of her jaw, now mindful of the weapon in her hands “The strange little thing that does not behave the way she’s supposed to, reading books and shunning typical female pursuits” his hand fell towards her exposed collarbone, tracing idly the small contour of the tiny diamond she wore there before his fingers skimmed further down, dipping lightly into the bodice of her dress and Belle had to lean against a tree at her back, suddenly feeling light-headed “No jewellery to relieve you of except some petty little trinket, no lovely rings to slide off your fingers” his hands clasped her, his fingers sliding against hers “No earrings to pluck out of your pretty little ears” he got his face close to one of her earlobes and the feel of his hot breath ghosting over her soft skin made her shiver “Perhaps then, something bolder. An anklet?”
He dropped to his knees, one hand taking hold of the wrist of her dagger-wielding arm and the other lifting her skirts to reveal the shapely form of her calf. He traced the underside of her leg up to the hollow of her knee and she shifted, swallowing an unladylike sound before attempting to kick him, not very surprised when he simply dodged her foot and stood up again.
“No, no fineries except for the damask of your dress” he caressed her waist, his skin making contact with the fine fabric of the garment “Perhaps I should relieve you of it?”
She arched her back, the dagger tracing his right side, as if reminding him it was still there, ready to cut into him, and finally her eyes rose to meet his beneath the mask.
“I suppose you could. It’d force me to go back to Sir Gaston and his men in naught but my corset and undergarments, but I suppose he’d be a real gentleman about it” she said with as much nonchalance as she could. He pressed her back into the tree, tearing the dagger out of her hand and grabbing a fistful of her hair in the process, titling her head up to bare her throat.
“That overgrown fool is not worthy of seeing an inch of your skin” he hissed, nuzzling her neck with slow movements.
She laughed, a deep, throaty sound, combing her fingers through his hair seemingly to hold him in place, hiding the caress behind a practical pretext.
“And who would be? At least he wants to see me, to be near me. Very few do, you know. A strange little lady who locks herself in the monk’s library all day, who talks politics and history with old scholars and walks through the forest seeming to look for danger”
He pressed her closer when she looked away, as if ashamed of what she had let slip. He smiled against her skin, his hold becoming soft, gentle.
“How many people do you think, dearie, pass through this road every day?”
His voice against her collarbone made her dizzy, but she tried to concentrate on what he had asked. She furrowed her brow, suddenly realizing something.
“Not many. This road leads to the library and nowhere else” she whispered, eyes widening as his grin turned feral.
“Yes, and who would be interested enough to make the journey to that dilapidated old building with any sort of frequency?”
Before her mind could wrap around the surprising answer he yanked her to him, covering her mouth with his own, making her body sing in the process. She struggled against him the requisite amount of time before she fell pliant into his embrace, one of her hands getting a hold of the hair at the back of his neck to make it impossible for him to pull away and the other tracing the edges of his mask, not moving to pull it off. She opened her mouth to his the moment he traced his tongue over the seam of her lips, making a needy sound on the back of her throat when she felt his tongue drag over the roof of her mouth, seeking out every trace of her. She pressed herself closer to him, knowing this is what she had been truly seeking out when she had made the choice to visit the monastery’s library that morrow, against her father’s wishes and all common sense. She felt his hands sink into her hair, angling her face just so and massaging the nape of her neck and tracing the shell of her right ear till all she could hear was her blood roaring and her heart beating rapidly against her chest.
The Dark One, infamous highwayman of the realm, had taken quite a fancy to the road leading to the library through the forest, which had only intensified her desire to visit the religious men and lose herself in books.
He always managed to subdue her guards, using generally brains rather than strength, quick reflexes and innovative thinking coupled with some really spectacular swordsmanship skills. He’d usually trade barbs with her, sometimes getting comfortable inside her carriage while she clutched a book close to her chest, fearing he’d take it away. He’d make a quip and she’d retort with some scathing, clever remark of her own that wouldn’t fail to amuse him, coaxing a giggle out of him, sometimes even a full laugh. He’d delight in trying to shock her and seemed to enjoy it even more when she displayed a sort of dark humour similar to his own, but wasn’t above losing that façade of impish fun and getting sometimes quite cross with her when she in one way or another refused to bend to his will or in any way managed to make a nuisance out of herself. It had been during one of those occasions when he had first kissed her, telling her that if she refused to use anything of value he might steal he’d have to make do with stealing a kiss.
“Don’t look so stricken, dearie, it was just a kiss” he had dismissed as soon as he had spotted her wide-eyed expression. She had touched her lips with her fingertips.
“It was my first” she had whispered, her tone neither accusatory nor angry, merely dazed, surprised. He hadn’t mocked her like she thought he would. He had gone down on one knee, kissing her hand and apologizing for his ungentlemanly behaviour.
“You’ve stolen more gold than I can count, yet you apologize for a kiss?” she had asked, confused and oddly enthralled.
“I apologize for a first” he had replied, titling his head to a side “Next time I steal a kiss, I will not go down on my knees begging your forgiveness, my lady”
Before she had been able to stutter a “Next time?” he had been gone, a ghost in the night. And the next time they had met their usual song and dance had been interrupted by his lips pressing insistently against hers. She had fought him more because she had felt she was supposed to than because she felt any real desire to shove him away from her. And later on, when kisses and touches had become the usual way their encounters ended, she had fought at first because she was terrified that if she showed she wanted him, broke from her given role of ravished maiden, he would not seek her out any more. For that reason she didn’t dare use “his” road too much, at risk of making her intentions plain for all to see.
“Where has your fair mind gone, Milady?” he crooned into her ear, one of his hands delicately tracing her collarbone, coaxing her back into the present quite successfully. He pressed her back against the rough bark of the tree, a delighted little laugh escaping his lips when she arched against him “Away from my unwanted attentions, perhaps?”
There was enough mockery in that sentence to convince Belle he knew how shockingly welcomed his attentions were, but how could he not know when she was all but draped around him, panting and leaning against the tree to give her weak knees a rest? She choked back a moan when his mouth moved to caress the skin of her neck, the open-mouthed kisses gentle enough not to leave any mark behind, only a faint tingling. And her heart sunk when she knew what she had to do, even as her body visibly disagreed with her.
“I… I think… I think I’ve done enough reading for a while” she answered, knowing she couldn’t keep on being foolish. He stepped away from her, his eyes unreadable and, for once, no trace of laughter in his expression.
“I see. How unfortunate, my Lady, for the good brothers to lose the opportunity to see one as fair as yourself”
He was gone a second later, and it took Belle ten whole minutes to compose herself and begin the way back to the road, back to Gaston and the safety of her papa’s castle. If her feet dragged a little, if her steps were slow and reluctant, she tried not to notice.
“Belle, dear, how much better I feel now I know you’re not out and about inthe woods any more” her father’s words were kind but the reality of being without her book and her… pursuits, grated on Belle unlike anything else. It had been weeks since she had had a new book to read, and spending time with other ladies doing embroidery or playing the harp was not helping her feel less confined or listless. Some of her father’s advisers made noises of assent and approval, clearly content to have the lady of the castle in her proper place again. But how Belle longed to eat her words, to take them back, go visit the monks and find sin along with enlightenment, even if she had to pretend she did not want it, or need it or even welcomed it at all. She was past shame or prudence, feeling wretched and bereft and all because of a man who only ever came to her masked, and knew her from some petty trysts in the middle of a silent forest.
A few feet away a solitary figure shook his head in disappointment. It was His Grace the Duke of the Frontlands, lord and master of most of the land to the north of her father’s little hamlet. He was a mysterious being, reviled and revered in equal measure by everyone in the Kingdom, feared by the king, loathed by most of the nobles. Of incredible wealth and unclear origins Lord Gold, as was his family’s name, was perhaps the shadiest character ever to step into her father’s court. A money lender and deal-maker he was tolerated for his power and sought for his ability to solve problems… at a price.
Though usually not very talkative or pleasant he had never been anything but a gentleman to Belle, one of the few ever to seem honestly interested in the books she read or what she had to say. He had once called her “A flicker of common sense amidst an ocean of dark ignorance”, which had not pleased her as much as it should because he has been at a time pointing out her father’s foolishness. They had spirited debates over morality, law, philosophy and whatever struck their fancy whenever he was forced, by circumstances, to remain in Lord Maurice’s home for an extended period of time. Gaston has gone as far as to hint at jealousy whenever he saw them together bent over an old book and playing chess but Belle always laughed the idea away. There was something lacking in Gold to consider him interested in her as a female: he was all gentleness and calm, sort of detached with her at all times.
“I cannot imagine you being pleased at this self-imposed confinement, Lady Belle” his accented brogue turned her name into a caress and for a moment Belle was struck with a strange sense of deja-vu. She smiled politely, dismissing the Duke’s assertive comment with a small shrug of evasion. She curtsied again to the men, intent on taking refuge from everyone at the castle to re-read whatever she had stashed in her room when something caught her eye, making her inhale sharply. His Grace had turned to address someone behind him, his posture indicating that he was most likely saying something appropriately scathing and unpleasant, and for a moment part of his throat was exposed in spite of the high collar of his coat. And there, plain for all to see, was a faint, thin white line, a slash half-healed.
A slash she had made. And instead of dread, or shock or even indignation she felt happiness bloom inside her, a giddy, dizzy sensation that made her breath catch in her throat.
“Your Grace, it’s been a while since we’ve played chess. Would you care for a quick game, if you can spare the time? I am a bit restless, to tell you the truth”
The moment he turned to look at her she knew he knew she knew and all she felt was exhilaration, the same she always felt when she was on her way to the library, and her eyes caught the glimpse of the first trees of the Enchanted Forest.
“You sure you want to spend your time with an old man such as myself, dearie?” he asked, and she knew immediately what he was asking her. And, for the first time, she didn’t feel the need to pretend that she didn’t want the things she did.
“Yes” she finally said, answering him with both her words and her eyes “It’ll give us time to catch up. It feels as it’s been ages since we last saw each other. I’ve missed… our meetings”
And suddenly the Duke was wearing the smirk of the Dark One, and Belle found herself smiling brilliantly back, feeling nothing but a deep sense of rightness at combining the mischievous imp from the forest with the cool, intellectual nobleman in front of her.
“Your words flatter me so, my Lady” he turned to dismiss Lord Maurice with a few words before sedately following Lady Belle to the East-Wing sun room where she kept her chessboard and her small collection of books, trying not to let a very tell-tale giggle burst from his smiling lips.
She knew. Oh, how long he had waited for this moment.