At this, Niko moved closer and spoke up. "I saw tracks in the meadow- it showed that they came at least this far. But they inexplicably disappeared," he said. "I am not a tracker, so I may have missed something," he finished.
"The steward's idea is a good one; they are probably in shouting distance, but I did not want to do anything until you were finished."
"Then call," said Lord Draupaud. "Find them, and bring them back with you. Steward Thorne, we should return to the Castle, you and I."
As Derron headed off with Lord Draupaud, he stopped and muttered to Niko, "Threaten to withhold her training. Give her something to think about." With that he headed after the Lord with all haste.
[Continued in Lord Draupaud Weeps ]
Niko nodded, and once they had started back began to look for Aerin and Ranulf again. Still dismounted, he tied the horse to the tree near where they stood, and began again to look at the tracks. Once he had checked again that the tracks went no further he began to call out. "Aerin! Ranulf! We must be back to the castle, now!" He scanned the area around him, looking for any sign they had heard. "Aerin! Young Ranulf is needed back in the castle! Now!"
Aerin nodded silently as she moved to sit next to Ranulf on the branch. She reached with one hand to hold on to the trunk of the tree, and with the other she reached and put her arm around Ranulf's shoulders. Both to hold him up. And to just hold him.
All [Niko] saw was a ginger tail which rose up and protruded, as malevolent as any shark's fin. It swayed gently, purposefully. Shade was hunting.
"Aerin!" Niko said more insistently. The girl had to be close- Shade would never be far from her. "Aerin! You will be coming, now!" he said, his speech pattern lapsing as he realized she must have been close the whole time.
Ranulf looked at Aerin, his dark eyes wide still.
"We ... we'd better go down," he said.
Aerin looked at the boy under her arm. "Do you want him to know we know?" she asked him softly, her dark eyes showing her concern for him.
He nodded, still clearly a little shaky.
"Please, Aerin," he said, with far less of his usual lordly ways. "But tell him I took the news like ... like a man."
His underlip quivered a little.
Aerin nodded, then leaned over and kissed his brow. "You did take it like a man," she whispered.
Then she dropped down to the next branch, and held up a hand to Ranulf.
"We're coming," she called down to Niko as she helped the boy out of the tree.
Niko looked up at the sound of Aerin's voice. Combat reflexes kept his surprise from showing as he focussed on the pair, but surprised he was. Surprised, and chagrined. He should have thought of this. He helped them carefully to the ground, realizing that the young Lord must have heard. What a terrible thing- but he didn't appear distraught. No. For the first time, Niko could see clearly that this was Lord Draupaud's son.
"You heard," were his first words. Not a question, but a statement.
Aerin nodded silently to Niko, placing her hand on Ranulf's shoulder.
The boy stared up at Niko, his eyes unwavering. "I should go to my Lord Father, Niko. He will need me."
Niko crouched down in front of the lad. "Just so," he replied. "But remember," he added, "you do not have to be strong all the time. This is not something you just forget." He looked at the boy with obvious pathos in his eyes. "Nor something you should."
Then standing up, the moment was gone as he turned towards the castle and started back.
By the time they reached the castle, the news seemed to ghave spread. All three of them were given uneasy looks by the servants and such townspeople as chanced to be passing.
"Should we go to the Sept?" asked Ranulf. "Will they have taken her there?"
"That is entirely possible," Niko said uncertainly. "But my first instincts would have been the tower. With the ... circumstances as they are, I do not think they would have moved her."
Unknowingly, they took the same path that the Steward and Lord Draupaud had taken, Aerin ushering the young Lord on as Niko looked severely at any who dared look on. Soon enough, they were outside her chambers- chambers that Ranulf had himself only visited so rarely that it might as well have been foreign to him.
He saw the guards outside, as well as the Steward and the Septa in conversation, and drew them up short. Crouching again in front of Ranulf, he looked into those dark, wide eyes. "You have been a credit to your father, Young Lord," Niko said, smiling sadly. It was clear that this tragic circumstance was not the only thing he was thinking of. "Be strong for only a bit more- your father will surely be awaiting you." He knew the battlefield that young Ranulf faced now- only a little while ago he would have questioned the lad's readiness, but he no longer did.
Standing to his feet, he allowed the young Lord to walk ahead, taking up silent guard behind him as they advanced on the tower.
[Continued in Lord Draupaud weeps ]