A Nymph Without Mercy

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XIII

Mairi was not at all certain why her question had caused Garrick to react so violently. He coughed, he spluttered, and she worried for his health and safety but he waved her away firmly when she rose and tried to offer him whatever assistance she could.

“Are you tired?” He finally managed to croak out.

“A bit. My shoulder aches and so does my...” she blushed, not knowing if it was proper to mention how her lower extremities also hurt from being atop Callum. Garrick was the one to keep her from toppling over, but that did not keep her from growing saddle-sore.

He looked over her speculatively and it did nothing to quiet her embarrassment. “You are unused to riding, are you not?”

She nodded. “Callum is the first horse I have ever been upon.”

Garrick smirked. “I can well remember how uncomfortable I was the first time I began to ride. Finish your bread and you may retire.”

Mairi relented, the warm bread settling well in her stomach, yet she wondered if it would be possible to acquire some more sweeties. Not from the horrid woman who looked at Garrick so lustfully, but perhaps from the kind man who had helped her before.

But if those were Mabel’s honey-cakes...

Perhaps she did not want them after all.

She tried not to think about what Garrick was eating so vigorously. She understood in a way, she truly did. So many people had wandered into the forest looking desperately for food—men, women, and children alike. Some were so frail their bones protruded harshly through pallid skin, so obviously in need of nourishment.

She had never worried of such things before. The roots of her tree ran deeply and water and minerals abounded, providing plenty for her to survive.

But when she tried to eat the meat as Garrick had beseeched her, all she could think of was her little woodland friends, dead and gone as she buried her teeth in their flesh.

She shuddered, pushing away even the remnants of the bread.

Garrick’s eyes narrowed but he did not press her further, not on that account. “Drink, my lady, it will help you sleep.”

Mairi’s nose crinkled. “It is strange, and it burns my tongue. Do they not have water?”

“I would not be drinking water from an establishment like this—would give you dysentery more likely than not. If you do not want it then pull out the horn I left you.”

He reached across the table and pulled her cup to himself, drinking deeply. Belatedly she realised he had finished his own.

“You do not care for sweeties, you approve of meat, and you find foamy drinks pleasant. Are we to have nothing in common?” She did not mean to sound quite so morose, but it was becoming very evident that neither of them agreed on much.

Garrick smirked at her in bemusement. “There is more to a person than their taste in foodstuffs, Mairi.”

She sighed, supposing it was true yet finding it suddenly difficult to keep from being discouraged—not when she knew so little else about him.

He eyed her for a moment longer before releasing a sigh of his own, this one of resignation. “What do you want to know?”

Mairi quickly brightened. “Have you always been a m’laird?”

Garrick barked out a laugh. “Not a m’laird, little nymph. A lord. Or I suppose a laird if you are from these parts.”

Her heart swelled and she could not help but smile genuinely when he called her little nymph. It was the first time it was infused with such warmth and it made her feel...

Cherished.

Like he knew what she truly was and cared for her in any case.

But then she realised she had made a mistake yet again and busied herself with finding his water horn tucked away in one of the vast pockets of his cloak.

“Do not be embarrassed, I meant nothing by it. If you know nothing of titles I can see why you would be so confused.”

Her head tilted. “Titles? Like elders and ancients?”

“I suppose so. Although I do not know how one comes to hold such a position for your people. In ours it is through bloodline.” His tone had grown spiteful and she wondered if she had somehow asked something inappropriate.

“You do not approve of...”

He shook his head. “It is no matter. I have indeed always been a lord in way of birthright, though I doubt there are any who would suggest I have any legal claim to the title. Not anymore.”

She knew she should not press. But this was the most forthcoming he had been aside from his story of Callum, and she found that now that he had begun she thirsted after knowledge of him—any that he saw fit to share.

“Why?”

He took a long drink of her ale, not ceasing until that too had been emptied. “Because my face happened, that is why.” He spat the words bitterly, and the simmering rage was clear in his expression.

“I am sorry.” Not for asking—she could not be sorry for that. But she was sorry he had suffered so. She wished she could remember more of what he looked like, as perhaps that could help her comfort him. Perhaps she could tell if it was a natural disfigurement, or if something terrible had befallen him that led to his continued shame.

But no matter how she tried his features were blurred, and only her impression of them remained, and she was very sorry indeed that anything at all had harmed him.

He rose swiftly. “It is no matter, you had no part in it. Have you need of the privy?”

She looked up at him blankly. “No?”

His lips pursed as if judging her response. “Do you need to... relieve yourself?”

Oh.

She remembered how the sisterlings had laughed and giggled as the newly charged Mairi blushed and ran from a man who was evidently leaking against the side of a tree. She had thought it a horribly embarrassing and curious feature of mankind, and she was terribly grateful that her people only leaked tears—certainly nothing else from any other part.

“No, no thank you.”

He seemed surprised but took her at her word.

“Do not leave this spot. And...” He cleared his throat, discomfited. “Try not to make any new friends while I am gone.”

She should most likely be offended that he felt the need to leave such a warning before heading out the door, but she was too preoccupied with his previous query. Was she supposed to need to? She had eaten and drank water as he did, but she was a nymph—was she not? It was all very confusing, but she did not feel any pressing need to relieve herself as he had suggested, so she decided not to worry overly much about it.

She had already been doing far too much wrong to worry about any new attribute.

Mairi had not been lying when she said her shoulder ached. When Callum had nudged her it had been a blow to her still mending joint, and the sharp pain of it had left her breathless. But she did not wish to complain and he did not do it again so she supposed she harboured no resentment toward the beast.

After all, he was performing the tremendous favour of bearing her weight as well as his master’s, and she would gladly take a blow to her shoulder over continuing to walk on the rocky road that hurt the delicate soles of her feet.

Garrick returned shortly, and she was glad not to have been forced to be rude had anyone approached her in his absence.

“Shall we go up?”

Mairi nodded, the weariness of travel and continued heartache making her anxious for rest. She followed meekly behind up to a large configuration of steps made from wooden planks, and Mabel bustled over hurriedly before they had ascended too far. She appeared ready to continue her inappropriate remarks and insinuations from earlier, but one glance at Garrick’s mask made her recoil. “Pardon, m’laird, I was only wonderin’ if ye or yer... lady, would be likin’ a bath this evenin’. Only a copper more.”

Garrick stiffened. “Not tonight.”

He took Mairi’s arm and ushered her forward, and she wondered if he found Mabel as disagreeable as she.

They continued on, Mairi peering down at her feet in bemusement. “I should have liked to have washed them.”

Garrick stopped and stared down at her feet. She had pulled up her skirt slightly to ascend the steps, and she saw his eyes widen in surprise. “What happened to them?”

They were generally kept covered by her the length of her gown, and he would have had little cause to have noticed them before.

“The road is very cruel. There are many twigs and stones that liked to hide until I stepped upon them.” She wiggled her toes, not liking the way the dirt and yes, bits of blood, came to her attention.

“You, wench!” Garrick called.

At first Mairi thought he was referring to her and she did not care for the name nearly as well as when he called her little nymph—she shivered slightly at the memory—but Mabel came scurrying back from the kitchens.

“Bring a basin of hot water to the lady’s room. One large enough for her feet.”

Mabel quirked an eyebrow, evidently his mask not fully quelling her usual tawdry manner of speech. “Does the lady have terribly large feet?”

Garrick growled and she realised her error for she bobbed a curtsy and disappeared.

“The wretch,” he mumbled under his breath, taking Mairi’s arm and guiding her to a room.

It was different than she had expected, although she had not truly known what to picture when he described a bed. For her a bed was made of moss, or in springtime she and the sisterlings liked to lie among the wildflowers and rest as streams of sunlight warmed them.

The room was cold, and there was a relatively large structure in the middle that she walked to curiously. The posts were made of wood, and attempts had been made at carvings, but to Mairi they looked rough and ill-practiced. “Is this the bed?”

Garrick strode over to a stone hole in the wall, placing logs within it quite efficiently. Not for the first time she was grateful that he was so knowledgeable in worldly matters. A fire soon lit the room and made it feel much more inviting, but perhaps that was simply because of the way the flames provided a more comforting light than from any true warmth. “Aye, that is a bed. Soon that trollop should be here with the basin and we shall see about your feet and you can climb into it.”

There was something amiss about his demeanour. He kept glancing at the door, and while he had risen from his position before the fire, he appeared as though he was readying himself to depart from her.

She swallowed. “You are not joining me?”

He shook his head. “I shall procure a room down the hall, possibly even next door. You shall be safe, little nymph, so fear not.”

It was reasonable. There was no need for him to take his rest in the same bed as she, and she knew in that place of her heart that still ached fiercely whenever he reminded her of it, he did not see her as his wife.

But she could not help but feel the rejection, the bitter sting that she would rather continue riding through the entirety of the night if it meant being near him. “Please, please do not. Just stay,” she bowed her head, “with me.”

All these things were too new, too frightening in their unfamiliarity, and he was the only thing that kept her tethered to this strange, unknown world.

She needed him, yet she readied herself for his dismissal.

He was silent for a long while, yet she made no move to peek at him. It was better this way, if he just left without providing excuses, or reminding her that he did not care for her as she dreamt he would.

Garrick sighed, and she heard his footsteps, but to her astonishment they came nearer instead of announcing his departure into the hall. He was quite close to her and she could not help but glance up at him. His expression was shuttered and she found herself getting lost in his eyes, a burnt umber in the glow of the fire.

“What do you think will happen if I join you in that bed?”

He was evidently waiting for something, for some reaction from her that would absolve him from any guilt in abandoning her in this room alone.

But he would not find it in her.

She was not so insensible to his disinterest in her as to suggest that they mate—that they seal the bond truly. She would not suggest such a thing until he cared for her.

“We will rest, as you said. But I will not be alone in a strange place with drunken men downstairs that could stumble in here unaware that the room is occupied.”

She had not truly considered that before and was not very afraid of the notion. She had seen drunken men before and it made them bumbling and slow—she could easily outrun them if necessary. And perhaps she should feel guilty for exaggerating her fears to her bond-mate, but if it made him stay...

Garrick stiffened.

“They would not dare. Not when you clearly belong with me.”

She looked up at him sharply, and he already looked annoyed at his choice of words. “As in, you are my companion. They would not be so foolhardy as to try to take advantage of you while I am near.”

Mairi nibbled her lip, already sensing his withdrawal.

“What do you think will happen if you join me in the bed?” She needed to know, needed to understand what frightened him—or angered him—enough to seek a room of his own. She readied herself to hear that he was desperate for respite from her company, but the censure never came.

A tap at the door and a muffled, “M’laird?” had Garrick stalking away from her, and she tried to soothe the hurt at the obvious relief in his expression by reminding herself that he had called for the basin specifically to care for her.

He opened it to a disgruntled Mabel who tried to balance a pitcher and large bowl with a few ragged cloths peeking out from its rim on her hip so that a free hand could declare her presence. “As ye requested.”

Garrick grunted and ushered her in. He approached Mairi again and she drew in a ragged breath when his hand extended, skimming down her side. She would not have minded the touch in private, but with a woman in the room...

But he was pulling away the cloak and fishing through a pocket until a small pouch was revealed. He took out a copper coloured circle of metal and handed it to Mabel—without coming into contact with her skin, Mairi was satisfied to notice. “That will be all.”

She gave one last scowl before bobbing a curtsy and vacating the room.

Mairi was relatively certain she had never been so glad of someone’s departure in all her life.

“She admires you. Do women not notice when a man is already mated?”

Garrick shook his head. “She admires the idea of a few extra coins and the satisfaction of bedding a knight, not looking for a husband. Especially not one like me.”

He proceeded to put the bowl beside the edge of the low bed, pouring the evidently warm water into it. “Come. Place your feet here. The heat should do them good.”

If Mairi had thought cold water was a wonderful thing, it was nothing in comparison to the comfort of a hot soak. At first she cried out as the warmth crept into every slice and bit of abused flesh it could find, and her toes brutally protested the change in temperature. She very nearly thought it pain and jerked her feet away, but Garrick laid a hand softly on her knee before she could do so. “Give yourself a moment to adjust. It will feel quite pleasant soon.”

True to his word, soon the stinging abated and she sighed as she wiggled her toes in the soothing water. “Is this a bath?”

Garrick chuckled, and she caught herself watching him in fascination as he went about removing his armour, piece by piece. It seemed a tedious business and Mairi was grateful for the delicate silks that fashioned her attire. They were soft and comfortable, and she promised herself she would see about mending the damage to the shoulder before they left the tavern for good.

It would be a waste of Harold’s thread if she did not, and she did so want to keep herself tidy.

“Part of one, little nymph. Sometimes the water goes to your waist, and other, more luxurious places have large tubs that you could drown in.”

Mairi hummed, trying to imagine such a thing. Would her entire body tingle as urgently against the heat before succumbing to an agreeable lethargy? She wondered if Garrick could be persuaded to make a bath their next destination.

Garrick finished removing the last of his armour, piling it all neatly in a bundle beside the door. His sword, she noticed, did not remain with the rest of his weaponry, but instead found its home on the small, rickety table that held a strange tapered device, a tiny flame perched upon its end. “You shall stay then? Truly? Even if you are afraid of what shall happen in the bed?”

His eyes flew to hers, and she decided his scowl was not nearly as intimidating as she once believed. “Do not tease me, my lady. You seem to lack an understanding of what happens when a man and woman share a bed, otherwise you would not ask it of me.”

She blushed, knowing perfectly well of what he suggested. “I believe you are an honourable man, and you would not behave thusly with a female unless you intended to recognise her as your mate—your wife.” She allowed her feet to splash in the water, a welcome distraction from what concession she had to make next. “You are not ready for that female to be me, no matter how I might wish differently. But I ask you try, for my sake, to keep me company.” Mairi peered up at him, ready to release him from her entreaty should he show some sign of true dismay. “Is that really so cruel?”

He drew a shuddering breath and his hands tugged at his hair. “You do not mean it to be, but you do not—cannot—know...”

He sighed, and sank down upon the bed beside her, although not close enough to touch. “Do your people know nothing of temptation? To know that your deepest desires could only bring heartache and harm, so you struggle and denounce them with all of your being?”

His voice held such pain that tears came unbidden to her eyes. “We do not deny ourselves the comfort of our mates—not when they are a part of us. We share a soul now, Garrick. That is what it means to be bonded. Surely you can feel it.”

She hoped he felt it.

“And I do not mean to tempt you to act against your will. I only mean to offer you what I can, for you to know that I am willing to be your mate—your wife—when you are ready.”

Garrick shook his head, and she could not tell if it was in disbelief or because he simply could not understand.

But before she could press, to ensure that he understood her clearly, he sunk to the floor and knelt before her.

She did not expect him to take the cloth from beside the basin and dip it into the water.

She did not expect him to gently take her ankle in his hand and bathe one foot and then the other, softly running the saturated cloth across the sensitive sole and between each toe until all that remained were the reddened evidences of her long, unprotected walks.

And she did not expect his words.

“Then you must allow me to show you that I could make a proper husband—that you do not offer yourself to a brute and a monster, incapable of caring for you the way you deserve.”

He took the last of the cloths, this one dry and rougher than she expected, but his touches were tender as he dried both her feet and bid her to unbind the cloak and lie down. He took away the water and finally removed his boots, coming to the side of the bed nearest the door. “We climb under the covers, Mairi. That is how one sleeps in a bed.”

His voice seemed hoarse, and she took his hand softly in hers, only to find it trembled slightly. “We can show each other, Garrick. Every day, for as long as it takes—that we can be good, kind, and loving mates.”

And when they both lay side by side in the unfamiliar bed, only the barest of knuckles touching beneath the coverings, Mairi found that maybe, just maybe, she could begin to feel at home once more.

As long as Garrick was beside her.


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