Mairi looked up at him in surprise. “I have no such power to offer you. I am sorry if that is a disappointment.”
Garrick chuckled lowly, not the least amount of humour in the sound. “Pity. That could have made this entire interlude worth it if only...”
He turned from her and removed his helm, and she watched the back of his head as he smoothed a mask over his features before facing her.
“Why do you wear that?”
He stiffened, and there was no mistaking the resentment that kindled at her enquiry. She returned her gaze to the forest floor, ashamed at her inability to communicate with him properly. Must she anger him at every turn?
“What do you remember of me? Of my face?”
Mairi shuddered, not liking to think back on the pain, the horrible pain that had left her breathless and so terribly afraid. But she tried to push away those thoughts and focus on her first glimpse of her mate. “You... I did not find you very fair.”
Garrick snorted, a curious sound. “Nay, I do not suppose you would.” He moved closer. “I wear the mask to stem the stares, to quiet the tongues, and keep the mother’s from clutching their children to their breasts.” He crept closer still, and she could feel that rippling of fear once more in her belly and she had to purposefully keep from moving away from him. He leaned forward, his voice nothing more than a menacing hiss of air as it met her ear. “For do you not realise, your mate is nothing more than a demon?”
Her throat tightened as all the memories of her adar telling her of demons and devils, vicious, unseen creatures that lived only to cause harm and unrest to the natural world threatened to break through the haze that seemed to cloud so much of her past.
She stared at him. His eyes were narrowed, and he almost appeared to be waiting for something.
Waiting for her.
Waiting for her to flee, to run, to curse him as she suddenly realised so many must have done to him.
He was not comely, there was no denying it. From what little she remembered of his visage, that much was still certain. But he was her mate, and she felt it deep within her very soul that he was simply a man.
A man who had known far too much pain and despair.
A lump formed in her throat as she recognised the same sorrow in her heart upon losing her kin.
“You should not say such things. I may not know much of your world, but I do know of the work of demons. You should not say such things about yourself.”
His lips pursed into a thin line and he drew back to his full height. “You saw me murder a man this day, and yet you suggest that our work is not similar. Is that truly the mate you desired?”
She wanted to cry. She wanted to yell at him that of course he was not what she always dreamed of when she pictured the handsome dryon that would someday lay claim to her.
But instead she looked up at him with all the strength she could muster—for she could not help but notice that she alone was supporting their tenuous bond, and it was exhausting to the extreme. “You are the only one I have and I must accept you as you are.”
Garrick blinked and stepped back, and she could not decide if she was relieved or despondent that he was no longer so near.
He walked away from her and leaned his head against the trunk of a tree, his shoulders hunched and appearing heavy burdened. She fought down the desire to go to him—to offer what little comfort she could—knowing that she must give him time to collect his thoughts.
“Imagine...” He stopped with a sigh.
She took a step forward, the better to see what little she could of his face. His eyes were tightly shut and for a moment she thought he vaguely resembled one of the children she had admired in the forest, playing seeker in the woods, squeezing his eyes closed until such time when he could find wherever nook his sister had hidden away within.
“Imagine you were a burden—that you were ugly and repulsive and had nothing to offer your mate except misery and death. That upon your meeting he had been hurt terribly and was now forbidden from ever seeing his family again. Would you not wish to free him if you could?”
She could not help but blink back tears, for even as he spoke the words she knew that he believed them.
And it broke her heart.
“You truly feel this way? That I see you as a burden?” She could barely form the words, and if possible his shoulders hunched further.
Mairi staggered backward, her hands clutched to her breast as she tried to stem the pain. She had been wrong, so dreadfully wrong. The throbbing, shooting hurt of the arrow as it separated muscle and sinew was nothing in comparison to this desperate knowledge that she had failed, so utterly and completely, to be what her mate needed.
She needed his help, that much was certain. To navigate this strange new world was a daunting enterprise, and she felt ill equipped and lost unless he was beside her.
But obviously, and she realised her grave error in not noticing it sooner, he required her help as well.
To soothe the hidden places of his heart where others had inflicted harm.
To show him that he was desirable as a bond-mate.
To show him that she cared for him.
For despite their wretched beginnings, there could be no denying that she did. She wished for his happiness, for him to laugh without scorn, to touch her gently as he held her in his arms and whispered of his love and affection.
She would be merciless.
She would heap such gentleness and fondness upon him until he could not help but reciprocate. For her brave knight was not so very brave in this.
But she could be.
Mairi went to him and laid her hand softly on his shoulder, a twinge of sadness creeping through her as he stiffened at her touch. “My poor, poor, Garrick. I have failed you so.”
His eyes squeezed tighter and he turned his head away, and with trembling fingers she followed. She did not remove his mask—would not hurt him in that way when it so clearly would cause him discomfort—but she allowed her fingers to brush through his dark hair, surprisingly silky for a man’s.
And she realised with a bemused smile that she was just as new to this as he was. She did not know the texture of a man’s hair as she had never felt it. Her adar’s had been soft and clean, and when she was a seedling she remembered running her fingers through the long strands as he told her stories of the Old Days.
Touching at all was still a novelty to her, so long forbidden except the occasional nudge against a sisterling or the brush of fingertips between parent and child.
But this was a wholly different action, one that felt right and true—as if for the first time she was performing her duty as a bond-mate well.
Garrick shuddered from her ministrations before meeting her gaze, his expression more vulnerable than she had ever seen. “You mock me.”
She shook her head sadly. “Never. Not about this. I have failed so completely in being a proper mate. I should have made you feel that we were meant to have bonded, that I encouraged our sealing, not left you wondering if I despised you for not being what I had always imagined.” She leaned forward and rested her forehead against his arm, suddenly hating the cool metal that kept her from connecting with him. “And for that I am truly sorry.”
“You take too much responsibility on yourself. When I consider how I have treated you...” She glanced up, only to find that he seemed to be looking far away, even as his eyes were settled upon her. “I am ashamed. Neither of us asked for this, yet I punished you for it. That is inexcusable.”
Mairi disagreed but said nothing.
He sighed, and she could not help but notice that his breath quivered, much as hers did when she was struggling against tears. “Perhaps... we should begin anew. I will do my best to believe your experiences, as incredible as I find them, and you shall... attempt to forgive me for not treating you as a lady deserves. I shall do my best to rectify that in future.”
Garrick was trying, she knew. But his proposal did not seem sufficient. She would forgive him, of course she would, but there were things she felt must be acknowledged aloud. “A counter proposal, if you are amiable.” She waited for his nod of approval before continuing. “You shall not dismiss my past, and you shall tell me what you desire in a mate... a wife. You shall not fight me as I try to strengthen our bond, and you shall not...” she swallowed, urging her tears to quiet so he could not accuse her of using them to manipulate him. “You shall no longer say that I desire another. You shall try to believe me that I am satisfied with our sealing, and that I would have us be happy. Together.”
“No, Garrick, please do not dismiss me. I do not know of your upbringing and you will barely tolerate speak of mine, but it is foolish to ignore it if we are to ever understand one another! And I realise I may ask too much for you to... try to find me desirable as your mate, but...oh...”
A horrible thought entered her mind. He had said that he had no other, that he was unbound at the time of their sealing, but what if... what if he did not wish to be faithful to her? Perhaps his reticence stemmed from his desire to be with other women—females of his own kind. Too often she had assumed that their ways were similar. But what if in this, this fundamental and soul-sealing aspect, they were different?
She had witnessed assignations in the forest before. In truth, many of the animal species did not mate for life. But they were most certainly not animals, and the idea of him wishing to be with others, perhaps dozens while she would pine and feel his pleasure through their bond...
It was too much to bear.
Garrick looked nearly panicked as she stumbled away, shaking her head furiously as she did so.
“What is it? What is wrong?”
“Tell me true, Garrick. Is the reason you do not wish to be my mate that you lust for others? That you fear if you are with me that you cannot be with women ever again should you desire them?”
He blinked, reaching for her even as she huddled away from him.
“How can... how can you ask that of me? Did you not hear what I just said?”
He came forward and she felt the sturdy trunk of a tree behind her back as she stepped backward yet again. “No, no! In this, in this you shall understand!” He was upon her, his hands gripping at her wrists and his eyes forceful. But while she expected him to be harsh, his eyes blazing with anger even as his fingers dug into her wrists, she found that it was not so. His touch was gentle as he allowed his bare fingers to skim the slivers of flesh her sleeves revealed, and she shuddered at the intensity of the sensation, echoed heartily through their bond. And his eyes, oh his eyes! They were bright and nearly desperate as he sought hers. “You think I do not desire you? That I would spurn you and dishonour you should I ever be graced with you as a wife? No man would ever dream of turning from you if he should be fortunate enough to secure your love.”
He leaned forward, his breath warm upon her ear. “But I do not have your love, nor do I deserve it.” Garrick allowed his lips to glide over the pale skin beneath her ear, and she shuddered at the strange feel of his flesh mixed with the texture of his mask. “And that is what keeps me from surrendering to you completely.”
He pulled away, and instantly she missed the feel of him. Perhaps she should have been nervous with him looming above her, pressing against her, but instead she felt safe. No one could touch her, no one would harm her—not when she was in the cocoon made of her bond-mate’s imposing figure.
She felt a blush rising in her cheeks at her thoughts, and she diverted her mind to think of his reassurances. He wanted no other, and her heart leapt for joy.
“I... I do not ask for your surrender. I ask for your willingness to try.”
He scoffed. “I see little difference. Caring for you would be no great difficulty, but I refuse to be a love-sick fool who craves your companionship while you...” he waved vaguely over her person.
She was mildly affronted. “I what? Mock you for your affections? Desert you at my whim?” Mairi took a steadying breath, knowing her anger would contribute nothing but raised voices and hurtful words. “Garrick, you are making this far more difficult than it need be. I am not like those you have previously met, I am sure you have realised. I will not be as cruel as they—not when I only wish for your happiness.”
He shook his head, his arms crossed over his broad chest as he stared down at her. “None have ever wished for such a thing before, so forgive me for being wary.” But his tone was incredulous and she had to control the urge to stamp her foot in frustration.
She wanted to go back to comforting him, to soothing as best she could and in turn, soothing the part of her soul that was bound to his.
She was tired of quibbling. Perhaps when their roots were more established these small arguments could fade with remembrances of sweeter moments, but Mairi was all too aware that their discord far outnumbered the few happenings of tenderness.
Mairi sank to the forest floor, leaning her head back against the firm and stable tree trunk. “What would you have me do, Garrick? You know of my willingness to be whatever you need of me, but first you must cease comparing me to those you have known before. I certainly do not compare you to Raghnall!”
She knew it was the wrong thing to say as his eyes darkened and his expression hardened. And she could not help the tears that threatened to burst forth at the knowledge that no matter how she tried, they never seemed to communicate properly.
Garrick opened his mouth. Then he closed it again with a firm snap and strode toward Callum. For a brief instant she was certain he was leaving her and she had neither the energy nor the will to call him back to her. But instead he rifled through his bag, grumbling all the while.
Mairi tried not to pay attention, the weariness and hopelessness settling over her nearly as tangibly as his cloak about her.
Her eyes were closed even as she felt the wetness on her cheeks that made it abundantly clear that despite her efforts, she was weeping. But soon she felt a presence above her, looming and unyielding and she was rapidly coming to associate that feeling with that of her bond-mate.
“The sweetie you requested.” He said the name with a barely disguised curl of his lip, almost as if the treat offended him. His hand was extended and wrapped in a thin and slightly ragged cloth was a food item that nearly resembled the biscuit he had offered her before, only this appeared nearly wet with moisture—an odd thing to be sure.
“What is it?” She sniffled, trying to cease her tears. They would only anger him further, she knew, and she felt oddly touched that even in his exasperation he was taking care of her instead of making her feel worse.
Perhaps there was hope for them after all.
“I believe it is a form of honey-cake. Far too sweet for my taste, but you may enjoy it.” She stared at it a bit longer, and he sighed before kneeling before her. He took one of her hands in his before placing the sweetie in her palm. She stared at him disbelievingly, not at all prepared for this act of chivalry.
“Thank you,” she whispered, not wanting to disturb the moment with more of her ill-conceived words.
He nodded swiftly before finally removing his hand from beneath hers and rose. “I shall not be offended if you do not care for it. It was your friend Harold after all who suggested it, not I.”
She nibbled her lip, trying to decide if her stomach was interested in this new and strange delicacy. It gave no answer, even when she prodded it lightly with a fingertip.
Garrick snorted as he leaned carelessly against a tree. “Are you waiting for your stomach to speak to you again? I can assure you, if I perform my duty appropriately you shall not reach that level of hunger often. Simply taste it.”
She blushed, grateful for his explanation though slightly embarrassed at having done something foolish yet again. She took a small bite and held it in her mouth, wondering at the flavour. It was sweet, to be sure, and the honey—something she knew of!—gave it a moistness that was decidedly pleasant.
Mairi ate it with vigour.
Garrick chuckled. “I cannot say I am surprised, you seem like one that would have a fondness for sweet things.”
She swallowed, thinking it would most likely be impolite to speak to him with her mouth full of honey-cake. “Is that bad? Should you have preferred a mate who did not?” She touched the remainder of her treat forlornly, wondering now if she should pretend indifference. She did so wish to please him.
Garrick sighed and rolled his eyes. “Do not do that. If there is one thing I shall not abide from this entire confusing affair is for you to deny your preferences in order to become who you think I desire. So eat heartily, for I do not know when we shall pass that way again.”
She cocked her head, deciding to savour every bite if it could not be a regular occurrence. “Will we not be passing by the tavern again? We seem to be on the same road.”
He looked mildly surprised. “Aye, we shall. But we have a king to speak to and I had not intended for us to stay the night.”
Mairi pressed her finger to the shabby cloth, collecting whatever crumbs she could before licking them off with her tongue.
Garrick watched her intently, and she blushed yet again, although she was not entirely certain as to why.
“Should you... care to stay the night? I do not know what your home was like, but I would imagine you miss a warm bed and a roof over your head to keep out the night air.”
He appeared awkward, almost as if he was unaccustomed to asking for an opinion instead of plunging ahead with whatever plan best suited him.
She smiled at him in gratitude, his obvious effort to include her doing more to sweep her sadness than even the sweetie. “I am used to sleeping in my tree, surrounded by my people. But things are different now, and I should very much like to try this bed you speak of.”
Garrick brusquely nodded. “Very well then, a bed you shall have.”
And perhaps she should have insisted they stay, at least until more things had settled. She so wished he would come to accept that she did not see him as others did.
But with the honey-cake sweet on her lips, and his obvious care and attention even in the midst of his ire, perhaps things had been nearly settled after all.