She slept in trees.
Like some sort of forest urchin whose parents could not provide a proper home.
Garrick felt guilty the moment such thoughts entered his mind, as he was no better. She at the very least had been happy and contented with her family, and he could only provide a meagre bedroll—not a manor and servants to dote on her like was befitting her person.
Their conversation had not gone as he had intended, but he was quickly coming to realise that planning anything at all with this girl—woman—was generally for naught. He would perpetually be lost and confused, fumbling about for the proper way to speak and treat her, while she smiled and cried and apologised in equal measure.
It had to end.
For his sanity, they had to come to an accord, one that left him feeling less of a monster and with her relatively satisfied with the arrangement.
Garrick was a creative man. Whether it was allowing himself a few stolen moments composing on his lyre when none could hear him, or by deciding how best to dispatch whatever unfortunate soul he was charged with killing, he usually was able to ensure a modicum of imagination.
But not in this.
Not when he still found it so incredibly unbelievable that she could want him. Perhaps not in the physical way, she had not mentioned that, yet he could begrudgingly acknowledge it was never far from his mind. But she at least desired his company and that was more than any other had allowed.
He had promised her a bed—something she claimed never to have experienced. She had begged him, or possibly more accurately demanded he make an effort to believe her when she made such curious declarations, and he noted with a grimace that he was already failing in even that.
What he had not considered was the prospect of her in a bed. All feminine beauty, reclined, vulnerable, and sleepy as he decided to wake her with the press of his lips upon hers, his body soon to follow.
On that he would not bend.
If there were any unsavoury characters he might feel compelled to stand guard outside her door, but it was too dangerous, too tempting to even consider the notion of sleeping in the same room—let alone the same bed as this little nymph.
“Can we remain here a while? I should like to speak further.”
He grimaced but mimicked her position some distance away, leaning against a tree of his own. He unsheathed his sword and lay it on the mossy ground beside him, ready to make use of it should any stumble upon their location.
“What else is there to say?”
Too much, he knew, but he thought it best to allow her to guide their talk as he seemed to do nothing but cause misunderstandings and arguments between them.
Not that she fared much better.
“Do you believe me? That I am a nymph?” Her eyes were wide and imploring but she quickly looked away, a sadness setting over her. “Was a nymph. I do not know what I am now.”
Garrick hesitated, knowing he must speak carefully lest he insult her. “I believe you are from a different people, though I do not yet know what that means.”
Her head tilted. “You have heard stories about us, surely.”
“Aye, fantastical stories that you have already stated cannot be fulfilled. Which then leads me to consider that you are merely human beings playing in the trees.”
Her mouth dropped open, aghast at his suggestion. “We are not men. We are dryads and dryons, people and protectors of the forest. We are born and tied to our trees, and can speak to others.” Her hand reached out to touch a large exposed root at her side. “I miss that so...”
Garrick’s eyes narrowed. It was simple enough to believe a group of men and women wished to abandon the absurdity of a monarch’s rule and sought shelter in the trees. It was something else entirely to accept they were not of the same kind as he.
Mairi’s brow suddenly furrowed, and he wondered what could make her think so very hard. “You said that you spoke to Raghnall.”
He huffed, still not liking the way his stomach twisted uncomfortably when the man’s name spilled from her lips. “Aye, I did. He threatened to kill me.”
She blinked at that, and to his increased ire a sad smile appeared. “He was a good friend, though he should not have done so.”
“Was there a reason you brought up the man yet again, or did you merely do so to annoy me?”
She rolled her eyes. “I do not know why hearing that someone cared for me should be troublesome to you. I should like to know that you were loved!”
He scoffed. “Were you not moments ago wondering if I intended to take a mistress while bonded to you? I think you quite capable of expressing jealousies of your own.”
Mairi looked properly abashed at that and fiddled with the root once more. “Raghnall does not speak the common tongue, only nymphlin. I do not understand how you could have conversed.”
Garrick froze. “I can assure you, I did not lie. We didmeet and exchanged words. They were unpleasant and I might have slightly strangled him, but I am offended that you should think me deceitful.”
She appeared rather horrified at his confession, and he regretted mentioning the other aspect of their meeting.
He waved his hand dismissively. “Did I not already mention he threatened to kill me? I do not take kindly to such suggestions, as ridiculous as the prospect truly was, yet I would think you would come to my defence.”
He peered at her pointedly and her head bowed. “You are right. Of course you may defend yourself against one determined to see you harmed.”
Garrick sniffed, glad of her concession.
“But that does not explain how you conversed! He could not have learned enough of the common words to speak to you properly!”
“You appear to have little trouble. Perhaps our languages are not as different as your assume.”
She gave him a look of pure exasperation. “Raghnall was a guard. Only those sent out to lead away strangers were taught how to speak it, as it was necessary to know of their intentions.”
Garrick’s eyes narrowed. “What are you suggesting?”
She tugged at a few errant grasses, her eyes refusing to meet his. “I am suggesting that perhaps our bonding had unforeseen consequences.” Her shoulders hunched and she drew up her knees, and he thought the posture quite like a child—fearful and alone. “I cannot speak it anymore, you know. I try to remember and only a few words come. The rest...it is all a blur. Like I only dreamed of it.”
He suddenly wished he had waited to provide her the treat, as she seemed in need of its sweet distraction now more than ever before.
But there was nothing left but his own unpractised sympathy, and he felt sorry for her indeed that she only had the likes of him to rely on for comfort.
“What do you remember of home?”
She glanced at him in apparent shock, and he felt a flicker of the ever-present guilt at the tears shining in her eyes. “You truly wish to know? You will not ridicule me for them?”
He flinched, resolving once again to mind his tongue around this delicate creature. “You have my word, I shall not mock you.”
Mairi stared a moment longer, evidently judging his sincerity. He met her gaze and held it, willing her to understand that he did not wish for her tears— or her unhappiness.
“I remember the sounds of the forest at night, of wild things hunting and pouncing in the darkness, and feeling so very safe for I knew that the High City was well protected. I remember my sisterlings, how they used to help me with my hair since...”
She stopped and her lower lip trembled.
Garrick wished he was seated closer so he could still it with his thumb.
Mairi took a shuddering breath, but thankfully her tears fell no faster than before. “They helped me for I had no amé to do so. Adar would have offered but...” She blushed. “Only one’s bond-mate is to help with it, not any other dryon. Not even my father.”
He was not prepared for that. To hear of the duties of a bond-mate—which he still was not prepared to accept as his own—sent a flare of longing that was decidedly unwelcome.
He wanted to help her.
Garrick wanted to keep her tangled locks perfectly in place, a glistening sheet of tresses so perfectly managed that his fingers could slip through it like strands of silk from the crown of her head all the way to her hip, only to then make the journey again.
And then possibly caress that same hip if she should be so agreeable.
“It must look frightful.” She pulled a lock self-consciously, the blush never managing to quiet.
“If it does then apparently that is my fault for not tending to it.”
He did not mean to sound curt, but even as the words escaped he realised how she would perceive them. It troubled him, for how could it not? Not when he was reminded yet again of her expectations—ones that he would quite willingly perform if he was any other man.
Any other man who was worthy of her.
She flinched, much to his chagrin.
“I do not blame you; that was not why I spoke of it.”
Garrick sighed and rose. Perhaps it was foolish of him to choose to be so close to her, but in some corner of his mind he felt an incessant pull that drew him closer to her tree, and before she could protest he was settling beside her, mimicking her position against it.
“I know. But whether or not I agree with the practice, you see me as your bond-mate. That means that you would like for me to see to its care.”
Her voice was quiet and nearly non-existent, and he was glad he moved closer so as to hear her mumbled reply. “Only if you wish to. You speak of burdens as though I would never feel similarly, but I assure you I do. I will take whatever part of being my mate you will allow.”
She said this with such pure earnestness that it made his heart ache in strange and unknown places. She should have all of a man. She should have every bit of her pampered and adored by someone capable and trustworthy enough for her returned ardour.
And he knew with absolute conviction that man could never be him.
But instead of saying such things, reminding her of the louse that she had the misfortune of being bonded to, he rasped out, “What else do you remember?”
She turned, and instead of the both of them confessing and enquiring to the empty air before them, she twisted and adjusted until she could peer at him—and he was helpless to look away. “Humans. I remember finding them curious, and wanting to know them better. Adar and the elders warned me of it many times.”
He had not expected that. “And what about humanity was so very curious? That it is evil and corrupted while your people are idyllic and...” beautiful.
Garrick stopped the word before it could escape.
He could not quite interpret her expression. There was an intensity to her gaze that unsettled him and before he could move, even think of moving, her hands had found the way to his covered face as she knelt closer, her thumbs skimming over what little skin was exposed. “No. That you were different. That you could be so lost and confused when love and goodness were within your grasp, yet you were too blind to see it. And I found that very curious indeed.”
Garrick could not breathe, not when she was touching him and her eyes were soft and gentle even as her words conveyed such conviction. And he knew that she spoke of the abstract idea of mankind, but even he could not deny that she equally referred to him—that everything he could possibly have desired was at his fingertips—was touching him—yet he could not seize it, cling to it as the first truly good thing that had ever happened in his miserable existence.
Her fingertips sent a pulse through his mind and heart that he had never experienced before. It was as if the bondshe referred to was a tangible thing, a part of him that was tethered to her and flared with new life at the experience of contact, as small as it might be.
He wondered how it would feel should there ever be more contact.
Garrick closed his eyes, willing away such thoughts as he fought to keep his breathing steady.
“Why do you fight me, Garrick? I mean you no harm.”
And for some inexplicable reason, he felt near tears. The old part of him, the one that had not experienced whatever incredible reaction he had to her—this creature—would have thought her a demon sent from the very depths of hell to torment him with her sweetness and promise of the love he could never know.
But something had shifted within him. And he knew that, however unbelievably, she cared for him.
It would be so easy, so deliciously easy to relent.
To pull her to him and to claim her lips and declare to the world that she was his wife, in every way that mattered.
But as her fingers delved gently, thoughtfully, under the seams of his mask, he froze.
And she must have sensed his withdrawal for she smiled at him sadly, and he desperately wished that he could silence his upbringing that screamed that all of this was a trick—one that he likely would not survive unscathed.
“I am sorry,” he croaked, and he cursed himself for allowing his emotions to disrupt his composure.
She shook her head. “Do not be, you cannot help it. Someday you will grow to trust me, and I look forward to when that happens.”
He was saved from having to respond by a dissatisfied Callum coming toward them and nudging Mairi quite forcefully with his nose. She was nearly pushed over by his determination and she released a cry of alarm, but Garrick caught her before anything serious could befall her.
Of course, at most she would have scraped her palms on the prickly needles that fell from the pines high above them—hardly some great injury. But he caught himself looking at her palms and his brow furrowed when he noticed the scabs that already marred the otherwise milky flesh.
Mairi was still eyeing Callum suspiciously, obviously waiting for him to harass her once more. “In the stream. The rocks were slippery.”
He recalled how he had found her in the tavern, soaked to the bone, and evidently hurt.
He grasped her hand carefully with his, ignoring Callum’s impatient neigh. He was a horse used to travel, and he had spent far too much time wandering and waiting since meeting Mairi.
His thumb moved over the marks gently, and he was glad to see that no debris was visible that would impede the healing process.
Perhaps he should inquire as to how she fell in a stream, but he did not. It was either a sorry tale of her wandering in the woods alone as she searched for him and would illicit only more guilt, or one filled with embarrassment as she tripped over an errant rock as she knelt for water. The first would cause him only more guilt, and the second would bring her discomfort.
It was better not to even pose the question.
“Come, we shall see about finding you a bed.”
She seemed almost reluctant to leave their little shelter of trees, and now that he understood a bit more of her rearing he could easily ascertain why. The forest was a comfort for her, familiar in its wild and unkempt state, even as it was lonesome now that she was disconnected from her people. The cities and villages they passed housed strangers, and incited a wholly different kind of loneliness.
He knew it all too well.
After quickly retrieving his sword and replacing his helm—although he retained the mask underneath knowing it would be removed again shortly— they continued down the road until they reached the tavern, smoke beckoning welcomingly from its chimney and bawdy laughter greeting them as soon as the heavy door was opened.
Garrick sniffed at the lot of them, whiling away the day drinking and playing idiotic games instead of being productive. Did they not have mouths to feed at home?
The wench that had troubled him earlier sidled up presently, a bright yet surprised smile on her face. “Back so soon, m’laird! Not many can resist our ale or me fine sweeties!” She winked saucily and bent forward, revealing an ample bosom. Garrick sighed, used to such treatment. They saw a fine and expensive suit of armour and thought to steal away more of his coin, either by a quick flash of feminine flesh or by other pursuits that generally required the use of an upstairs bedchamber.
Or a few propositions had suggested a stable, as if he would ever be tempted by such indecency.
But when the helm was removed and the mask revealed, all such beguiling ceased, and wary politeness took its place. A few brave girls would still make an attempt, but always with a barely disguised look of fear and curiosity in their eyes that was tremendously off-putting.
“We require lodging and a hot meal, should you have it.”
Her gaze settled on Mairi and Garrick suppressed the urge to step in front of her, blocking her from view. She had survived with him, and would certainly continue to do so with a harpy sending her malevolent glares. “Of course, m’laird. Will you be requiring the entire night or merely an hour?”
Before Garrick could open his mouth to hiss his outrage, Mairi clutched at his arm so she could whisper in his ear as best she could. “Garrick, I do not know of your people, but we rest for almost as long as the moon is awake. Is that more than an hour?”
She was so innocent, so dreadfully innocent, and he did not approve of this trollop impugning Mairi’s character. “My wife and I shall require beds for the night, although if you do not cease with your tawdry behaviour I shall be forced to seek accommodation elsewhere.”
He would have done so already except Callum was currently being stabled, and he tended to complain should his saddle be replaced so soon after his removal.
And although Garrick was an utter failure as a bond-mate, he would not cause his only friend distress if he could avoid it.
She sniffed and her chin rose in the air, but thankfully she kept from making any further lewd comments about either Mairi or himself.
He would not be responsible for his actions if she had continued, but he did so hate the thought of injuring a woman in front of Mairi. He had killed a few in his time, but as a general rule he did not strike them—and he certainly did not want the little nymph to presume he would treat her similarly.
Garrick should not think of her as such, he knew, not until he could decide if he believed her tale or not. But it seemed to suit her, so perhaps it was not so very horrid of him.
Mabel waved towards the empty tables and Garrick brought them to the one in the furthest corner. He kept his back to the wall, the better to keep vigilant in case any showed signs of ill-intent. The few men scattered about seemed to be engaged in their stories and ale, although each in turn cast appreciative looks at Mairi. He quelled them all with an answering glare of his own, and they returned to their mugs with sheepish nods.
He supposed if he was to remain in her company for long, he would need to become accustomed to the stares centring on Mairi’s beauty, and no longer the peculiarity of his appearance.
Mabel was not the one to bring out their meal, instead a man of middling years, large and burly brought out two bowls of steaming stew, a plate strewn with hunks of bread, and two cups of ale—long experience making it all possible to carry in one armload.
“Ah, lass! Only ye and yer pretty face could put Mabel in such a dither.” Mairi smiled at him shyly and Garrick was forced to bite his tongue lest he make yet another comment about her effect on men.
But she had asked him to cease with such statements, and he would try his best to oblige—as long as the man left quickly.
Garrick had removed his helm, it being impractical to eat or drink with it on. None had paid much attention to it, but the tavern-keep started at his mask briefly when he managed to tear his eyes away from Mairi long enough to do so. “Pardon, m’laird. I’ll be leavin’ you and the lady to eat yer fill. Please don’t be takin’ offence to our Mabel—she’s used to bein’ the prettiest thing in these parts.” He gave a funny sort of bow that Garrick dismissed with a wave of his hand, more interested in his absence than in discussing the wench.
He dug into the hearty stew with a vengeance, the flavour better than he had expected. The bread was fresh and warm, and he wondered if the owner had enlarged the portions to also excuse Mabel’s unsolicited actions.
“Please do not be angry.”
He glanced up at Mairi, only to see her toying with chunks of potato in the stew with her spoon instead of eating it. Her eyes were careful as she considered him, and he dropped his own spoon with a gentle splash. “Why would I be angry?”
She nibbled at her lip, and this time he was close enough to pull it free, but he was angry—or at least terribly annoyed, and he did not wish to frighten her.
“You do not like it when men are kind to me. You think it means that I shall want them more than I desire you.”
He grimaced, her assessment far too true for comfort. But as the words fell from her lips he realised their inanity, and that him making her feel dreadful for a man giving her a smile and help when she needed it would only lead to madness and abuses.
And he did not want that for himself, and especially not for her.
“It angers me to see that other men can be so easy with you. It angers me that you should have needed to seek their help when I should have provided it.” He sighed, distracting himself by tearing off a piece of bread and dipping it into the dark broth. “That does not mean I am angry at you, or that you should pay me any mind. I am an angry lot, and you will do yourself harm trying to circumvent each of my episodes.”
He realised how it sounded as soon as her eyes widened and she leaned back in her chair. “I will not do you harm, you foolish girl. But you will be so busy trying to appease me that you will forget to take care of yourself. You see to you and I will see to me.”
She watched him for far too long so he tapped the bowl in front of her. “Eat. I will not have you wasting away.”
Mairi obliged, but with not great enthusiasm. She seemed to like the bits of potato well enough, but when a chunk of meat met her spoon she stared at it in consternation. “What is it?”
Garrick shrugged. “Some kind of meat.” He poked at a piece in his own bowl thoughtfully. “Lamb most likely.”
She blanched, pushing away the bowl. “Is a lamb an animal?”
“Lamb is food. And it gives strength. So eat.”
He should have been more understanding with her. It stood to reason that a gentle soul such as she would find it difficult to eat meat, especially if she was not used to it. But food was oftentimes a luxury for these people, and game could be scarce in the forests. Sheep were lucrative not only for their wool, but also as a food source.
Garrick took another bite.
Mairi rose swiftly from her chair. “I... I am afraid I cannot... will not eat that, even if you require it of me.”
His eyes darkened. He almost forced her to retreat. He nearly hissed and bullied until she ate what he provided, damning her girlish fancies about what made for a nice meal.
But he stopped himself.
Acting in such a way would only cause her to hate him. And while he might be wholly deserving of her abhorrence, he did not wish to actively seek it.
So instead he took a deep breath and released it in a longsuffering sigh. “Sit down, Mairi. You do not have to eat the stew. But you must eat something so have the bread.”
She looked at him suspiciously but finally sat, tearing at the bread and chewing methodically.
It made him almost, almost go find that strumpet Mabel and ask for another honey-cake.
“After I eat, shall you take me to bed?”
Garrick choked on his ale, wanting nothing more than to do just that.