A Nymph Without Mercy

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It was better not to feel.

He was furious for her disobedience, as to his supreme horror, she had stumbled upon him in the very act he had not wanted her to witness. As he had expected she had flinched from him and looked so afraidwhen he approached, and that was never his desire.

Not from her.

When she had run he had almost considered leaving her. She had seen with her own eyes now the man she had chosen as a companion, and as he had believed she could not bear the truth. But with a growl he had stalked after her, not feeling the need to hurry. She would not get far, and he knew perfectly well that panic made one’s decisions sloppy at best.

But seeing her run, run from him made him ache in places he did not wish to consider.

So it was better to feel nothing at all, not in regard to her.

Garrick hated market day.

He hated the people and the smells and the way that even in a crowded centre he could not disappear like anybody else. He was at least a head taller than the lot of them, and while such was helpful for looking past and through the busy streets for sight of the long hair barely contained by his cloak, in general he thought it a nuisance.

The anger flared anew when he discovered her speaking with a man. It did not matter that he was elderly, something in him prickled at always finding her in the company of another.

It was time they talked—really and truly discussed the nuisances of their ways of life, because he could not continue as they had been. To ignore it proved inefficient as at every turn it was once again obvious how she was not versed in how to approach his world.

She had told him she would keep after him until he accepted her as a mate, but did that mean she would remain faithful should he ever relent? Or was she merely intending to free herself from him by bedding him, their bond sealed and her duty done?

He bristled at the thought, and he determined that after he had collected her from this man’s company, he would give her a stern talking to about what being his companion truly entailed.

Being alone in with other males would not be permitted, not when they seemed drawn to her like a fly to a honey pot.

The people gave him a wide berth, as they often did whenever he was desperate enough to join them.

When he drew closer he kept to what shadows he could, curious as to what they were discussing. The part of him that was convinced she could not possibly be as sweet and innocent as she appeared flared anew, and he needed to know if she abandoned the pretence when near another.

But she was as kind and gentle as she was with him—at least, until he provoked and badgered her into a display of her own, less than formidable anger.

He was only mildly surprised to hear this was the same man that had helped her on the road. Wemble was the primary inlet from the small villages—so small in fact that he would hardly consider them villages at all—that could not possibly support themselves should any of their members have a more specialised trade.

She had seemed wary of him at first, but quickly, and to his intense astonishment, she had appeared almost embarrassed. At first he assumed it was because of his own brusque manner, but something tugged and whispered to him that she was ashamed for him. And though foreign, he found himself agreeing with that interpretation, and the annoyance and anger at finding her began to wane.

Before he could quit the man and his spools of thread—what respectable man possessed such a trade?—he placed an age-worn hand on Garrick’s gauntlet. “M’laird, a moment.”

Garrick glowered, wanting nothing more than to return to his horse and be free of all of this. He did not like people, especially peasants who would seek to presume upon his relationship with Mairi and give him unsolicited advice.

“Speak quickly, I have matters to attend to.”

He glanced away from the man to ensure that Mairi was in fact waiting for him. He did not relish the idea of hunting her down twice in one day.

She was being lured by a smiling and rotund woman, evidently intent on a supposed noblewoman wearing her stock.

The interlude might cost him a few coins, but she would be safe enough.

He turned back to Harold.

“Marriage is a tricky business at the best of times—I should know, I’ve been wed for... well... I can hardly recall a time before I was wedded to my Grace.”

Garrick’s glower became an exasperated huff. “Is there a point to this that we might reach in the near future?”

Harold was a frail man, that much was certain, but when he rose to what height he did possess and gave Garrick a disparaging look of his own, Garrick could see the remnants of a once capable soldier. Now he might puff about with his pipe and sell his dyes and spools of thread, but there had been many wars in his lifetime and obviously he had been forced into the throes of them. “A wife is a treasure, m’laird, and I won’t apologise for sayin’ it. That girl is the best thing that will ever happen to ye, even if all the kings in the all lands grant ye land and titles. I was once gruff and surly and could snap at the best of them, but with a wife that will only lead to her cryin’. And there i’nt much worse than a woman in tears, especially when her smilin’ at ye with all her sweetness makes ye feel like the grandest of husbands.”

Garrick stared, torn between rebuffing his words on principle—he was not one to be lectured by any man—but there was a truth and sincerity in his words that caught him unawares. Because whether he wished to acknowledge it or not, he already felt that he had seen too much of Mairi’s unhappiness, and her smile was indeed one of the most beautiful things he had ever beheld.

But words failed him so he gave a curt nod instead before going to collect his companion from the woman currently thrusting a cloak about her shoulders. “A fine lady such as ye’self should have a proper cloak, not one that looks like ye stole if off a man’s back!”

She went to unhook the clasp of his cloak and remove it from about Mairi’s shoulders, and an all too familiar anger flared anew. When he had given her his cloak it was the first time he felt as though he had treated her rightly—like the lady that she was— and to see this woman disparage it left him feeling bereft.

But before he could intervene and snatch her away, away from all these people with their advice and judging eyes, Mairi was clutching it closed as she fumbled with the clasp and began to back away. “This was a present from my mate, and I’ll not have you touching it!”

The portly woman blinked at her before her gaze settled on Garrick. She curtseyed low, her cheeks an unflattering crimson. “M’laird, I meant no harm in it.”

He knew that. This was not his first experience in a market, and all of these sellers were trying their very best to make their wares seem the best and most desirable. But she had offended some hidden part of him that he had yet to examine, and although he knew it would be wise to give Mairi a cloak of her own—he would have need of his own eventually—now was not the time. Not when the anger simmered and the shame bubbled, and all he wanted to do was flee.

Except fleeing now included collecting Mairi, and as she followed the woman’s stare behind her she hurried to him, all wide eyed innocence as she looked at him expectantly. “Are we leaving now? Was Harold pleasant?”

Garrick harrumphed before striding away briskly, wanting to be free of this place as quickly as possible.

But before he could get too far ahead he hesitated.

She was a lady, whether he found her in the woods or in the finest palace in all the kingdoms. So he stopped and waited for her to scurry to his side before he extended the crook of his arm.

She stared at his curiously. “Is your arm injured? I cannot tend to it with your armour in place.”

Despite himself, Garrick released a low chuckle, shaking his head. “Nay. Traditionally a lady would take a knight’s arm as he escorted her home. I was merely attempting at courtesy.” Belatedly he realised his error, and his arm fell away. She would not want to touch him, even with his skin safely hidden away behind metal plates, and he was a fool for offering it.

Before he could turn away completely she gasped—and were those tears in her eyes?—and she clutched at his arm as she tried to reposition it as it had been. “I am sorry, I did not know. Thank you for telling me.”

That was not what he wanted. He did not want her touch out of obligation or her misunderstanding that custom and polite behaviour meant she was duty bound to comply. But as he opened his mouth to tell her this, to wrench away to nurse his hurts in peace, he saw her—truly saw her.

She beamed.

Her smile was only small and soft, but there was a happiness in her expression that was impossible to deny.

It made him despise all the more the way he had treated her previously.

A flash of memory at the fear in her eyes as he had approached her in the street after his assignment had been dispatched haunted him. She was putting her faith and trust in a brute with little tenderness to offer a delicate woman such as herself, yet she did so all the same. And he had scorned and blustered and made her experience terror—and he had never felt more of a monster.

He swallowed thickly, purposefully keeping himself from looking at her as he led them through the crowd and back to Callum. “We are going to speak, you and I. We are going to come to an understanding,” for my sanity, he added silently.

From the corner of his eye he saw the brief moment of worry cross her features before she hid it away. “If that is your wish.”

They continued in silence, Callum waiting precisely where he had been left. He appeared a cross between forlorn and impatient at his abandonment, and Garrick patted his neck firmly in comfort. “My apologies, friend. But our companion felt the need to flee and it would have been rude not to retrieve her.”

Callum jerked his head obstinately, and Garrick could not help but chuckle as he gave one last pat of good will. “You know that if I put her in charge of your carrots you would come to love her in no time,” he murmured, and he glanced over his shoulder to see Mairi staring with a furrowed brow.

“Are you speaking of me?”

Garrick drew to his full height, resolute that he would not be ashamed of speaking to his horse, and approached her purposefully. This time he did not hesitate before hoisting her onto the saddle. Hesitation meant she could squirm away, and he had experienced quite enough of that this day.

There was another, more visceral reason he had to keep his movements brisk when necessity demanded he touch her. He wanted to linger. He wanted to find a reason to keep his hands wrapped about her trim waist as he slowly and oh so gently placed her on the saddle, only to follow himself as he continued the torment by pulling her closer to the crook of his body as they rode onward.

But such thoughts were dangerous and wholly unwelcome.

So he kept his moves perfunctory and his touches quick so as to keep from bothering her overly much.

His grip on her as they rode however could not be helped, and he reminded himself of that firmly as he prodded Callum into a walk. There was no rush, no pressing task that demanded completion—and in truth, there was also little direction. Garrick had promised to talk with her of where they should go next, and he fully intended to keep to his word. But first he would have to report back to the one who had hired him, and that meant travelling many leagues eastward.

“Well? Your previous chivalry is waning if you do not give an answer. I shall be forced to assume that you were whispering all kinds of dreadful things about me and now Callum will never like me.”

To Garrick’s surprise, she sounded perfectly serious. Her hands, which had previously been tucked firmly about his neck as she feared for her life as they galloped along the road, were now in her lap, inching ever closer to play with Callum’s mane.

He very nearly increased his pace simply to have her clutch at him again.

But he contented himself with his arm about her waist, holding her steady and necessarily close to him—far closer than was good for either of them.

“I can assure you, his dislike of you would stem more from your flight and his master’s subsequent need to catch you which left him without greens to nibble than anything I might have said.”

Her worried eyes met his, and he nearly regretted his dry words. “I was wrong to have run. You are my bond-mate and I promised to remain at your side and I have already failed. I beg your forgiveness.”

Garrick groaned, not at all finding comfort in her words. He was the one who should shower her in apologies, not the other way around. For her to suggest that the fault was hers should have given him relief. His guilt could be absolved for she was willingly accepting blame for all that had transpired.

The power would once more be his.

But that was ridiculous in the extreme for as his grip on her tightened when Callum stumbled slightly on an errant cobblestone, as he knew from the moment he first saw her, Mairi wielded more power over him than any other who had come before.

He swallowed thickly, reminding himself firmly that he was the one to tell her they would speak. Nevertheless, he had not intended to be on a horse. There would be a crackling fire and food warming on the spit and he would have distractions should he require them. But instead she was still watching him with that imploring look, as if his next declaration should have the ability to shatter her.

He rather supposed it did.

“Mairi, why do you think I bound you to the tree?”

That seemed to surprise her, but she swiftly averted her gaze and resumed twiddling Callum’s mane between her fingers.

Garrick sincerely hoped she did not begin to braid it, for he would be damned before he rode a war horse gussied up like a prancing pony.

“You did not want me to follow. You did not believe that I would obey you when you told me to stay.”

He grimaced, the word obey making him uncomfortable. She was not a dog for him to command, and he did not want her thinking that of him.

“I did so because I did not want you to see me at work. You say you do not know much of my world, and that is true. That is good. I will... attempt to be more forthcoming in matters that are appropriate for you to know and understand, but you must also trust me when I deny you. Some things are simply better left unknown.”

She was quiet for a long while, and Garrick would have enjoyed the fine breeze, the warm body pressed against him, and the knowledge that he had completed his task well if not for the tension coiled in his belly that her silence could not bode well.

“Why was his blood red?”

She spoke so softly that he would never have heard except that he listened and watched so intently for any sign of her thoughts. He stiffened, not certain if he should respond.

They had exited the city and Garrick allowed Callum to plod back from whence they had come. It had been his intention to return, and he would have if Mairi had not followed him. He should like to provide her a bed. Not only because he had begun to miss the comforts of his own bedroll, but also because she deserved the ease and security of a room with a lock, and the ability to have some peace without his presence.

But she had made an inquiry, the second time she had asked it of him, and this time her voice was entreating him and sounded so very lost that it sent an ache in his chest.

“What are you?”

He should not have asked—it was an errant thought that he did not want to truly consider. She was a maiden, fine and fair, and that was all. Raghnall might have implied they were of another race, another kind, entirely, but that was nonsense.

And he wished he could rescind his question even as she stared up at him, confusion evident. “You know what I am. You call me nymph, after my people.”

This was not the conversation he intended to have. They were going to settle matters between them—decide that when he must complete an errand, she would remain behind so as not to be tainted by what he must do.

And certainly not debate on whether myths and legends were true.

Garrick had killed many. The tone of their flesh, their land of birth, it did not matter. All of them bled the same red—assuming he dispatched of them in such a messy way of course.

But not her.

When his arrow pierced her, the blood that issued forth so profusely was not like any he had seen. He had dismissed it at the time, as he had been terribly upset by the whole dreadful business and was more concerned about her than her peculiar physiology.

“That is not why I call you that.”

His voice was hoarse as he grappled with the possibility of her being not exactly human.

Her brow furrowed, and he suppressed the urge to drop the reins and smooth away the fine line with a fingertip. “Then why? I assumed it was because you believed me.”

Garrick shook his head, groping through his mind for a response that would not be insulting. His tone when he used the term was usually biting, nearly hurtful in some way as if he was distancing himself from her unearthly beauty.

It was not as though he could call her angel, even if it had been his first impulse.

Garrick saw the small divot in the forest that signalled their previous night’s encampment.

He needed a moment. They should move on, find proper shelter, warm beds, and a meal—perhaps frequent the tavern he had found this... creature in before.

Mairi seemed surprised to return, but meekly allowed him to help her down from Callum, who immediately went to his favoured greens from earlier and munched contentedly.

Garrick walked away, his mind revolting against the possibility of accepting that Mairi could be anything but a maid.

Her head was bowed as she stood where his bedroll had once been laid, and he took in her qualities, not for the first time. Hair longer than he had ever seen, remarkably untangled from her sojourns. She knew not of eating, she had no shoes, and her people banished her for merely touching the likes of him.

He swallowed, a peace settling over him the longer he pondered and maybe—just maybe—began to think that it might be true.

“Does this mean I am entitled to a wish?”

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