Two men conversed in low tones, though he did not recognise either of them. A lofty maple stood above them, and the remains of a smaller, leafless tree was beside it, and the first man, taller and more grieved in appearance than the other laid his hand upon the ashen bark as he bowed his head. “It has not perished, not completely. Perhaps there is hope.”
The second man sighed. “She might yet live, but she may not return. You know this.”
The taller of the two stiffened. “Forgive me, but I find it a comfort that my nymphling might live. Even if you shall not allow her to come back to me.”
“It is for the safety of our people. She is one of them now.”
He shook his head in denial. “Not while her tree lives.”
Garrick awoke slowly, the dream strange yet not as unsettling as many he had experienced. Instead he found the bed, although not as fine as the feather bed he had in his cottage far from here, comfortable enough and very warm. He clutched further to the source, but stiffened when that warmth released a sleepy little sigh and nuzzled back against him.
His mind was befuddled and belatedly he realised he should have pulled away—disengaged himself from the tangle of arms and legs and hair, long luscious hair that he never wished to leave, that held him captive.
She was lying on his arm, and he cursed the numbness he felt. It was his sword arm, and he scowled down at her sleeping form. If any had intruded during the night he would have been slow and fumbled as he tried to protect himself—protect her—against whatever miscreant dared encroach.
But at the small contented smile on her face his own features softened, and he could not help but stare in wonder that a lady such as her could find peace within his arms.
Even if it did subject one of said arms to complete uselessness.
He thought back on the dream. He was never one to give much credence to meaning, even as many of his own were bits of memory that merged into one steady stream of misery and hatred. But this had been different. In some small way they seemed similar to the creature in his arms, ethereal and lithe, with garments cut of the same silks that were impossible to purchase in any of the lands known to his kind.
Could they have been her kin?
He shook his head bemusedly. So much talk of souls bonding and obscure languages had obviously encouraged his mind into a fanciful imagining that had no place in reality.
Mairi’s brow furrowed and a brief flicker of pain shadowed her features, and he noticed with a grimace that she was lying on her injured shoulder—something that would most assuredly cause discomfort and possibly further damage if she was not careful.
Garrick needed to be far away from her when she awoke, not wanting her to think he had taken advantage of her as they slept.
He chastised himself thoroughly.
It had been at her insistence that he was in the bed at all. He had tried to keep an acceptable distance—as little as it might be when they were travelling companions—but she had pleaded, and he was helpless to do anything but relent. Not when he should be the one to beg of her for time and concern, not the other way round.
With his lone free arm that was embarrassingly wrapped about her middle he tried to lift her enough to slip free, but the action must have jostled her shoulder more than she could bear in sleep for she awoke with a hiss of pain.
And he hated it.
He hated that he wished to wake her with a kiss, gently and sweetly, until her eyes fluttered open and she looked up at him and smiled.
But instead she tried to quiet her distressed breathing, evidently hoping that he slept on.
“No need for quiet, little nymph, I am already awake.”
She rubbed at her shoulder waiting for the ache to abate, but already a blush stained her pale cheeks. “I am sorry for our position. I can assure you, I did not cause it intentionally.”
Garrick scoffed, finally liberating his feeling-less arm and grunting in discomfort as the blood began to flow anew. He bent his fingers to aid the action, even as he wished to sulk away for being in pain at all.
But if numb fingers and the sharp pinpricks of an awakening limb were the only price he paid for the joy of sleeping beside this perfectly willing angel, he would gladly give it tenfold.
And he wondered if such selfish thoughts were truly so terrible, not when she made it so perfectly plain that she desired being with him.
He groaned and rolled over, climbing from the bed as quickly as possible, needing the distance from her.
“Garrick? Are you terribly displeased with me? I promise that I did not intend for anything to happen. Have I spoiled your virtue?”
He gaped at her. “What on earth are you speaking of?”
She sighed, burrowing back into the blankets even as she peeped out at him. How could one speaking of taking someone’s virtue look so innocent at the same moment? “You said that this was not proper for ones who were not married. Perhaps you do not think you have a wife yet but I was worried you thought I had somehow tainted you... that we had done something wrong.”
Mairi plucked at an errant string coming loose from the seam. “It is not as though you would have a wife that was not me...”
She looked at him then, long and pleadingly, as if the thought of him taking another as a wife was actually painful to her.
His mouth was dry as he swallowed, trying to form the words. “I have told you that only a fool would seek another when you are near. And do you not remember what I said last night? I shall try... am trying to show you that I can be a proper husband. You have tainted nothing, least of all me.”
“Does that mean you are not upset about holding me as we slept? That you found it as pleasant as I? For I am lonesome now...”
She could not be in earnest.
But one glance at her eyes showed that she was indeed sincere and it baffled him.
“I am... unaccustomed to lounging about after waking. I have... personal matters to see to that make it necessary to rise relatively quickly.”
He still wondered why she had not yet demanded the need for the privy. Even if he had roomed alone he would not have made use of the chamber pot, finding the idea of some unsuspecting maid being force to clean it after him troubling in the extreme. So even if the temperatures were less than hospitable and he required use of the facilities he would brave the cold.
But Mairi only looked at him in confusion, and he had made no further effort to explain his habits to her. If she should need to relieve herself in future she would have to be the one to communicate it to him, for he would cease to enquire.
It was another strange quality of hers that begged continued thought, but for now he pulled on his boots and fastened his cloak about his shoulders, certain that the cool morning air would require it. He checked the pocket and found the coil of rope tucked safely within, and decided he could forego taking his sword. It was better for her to have it in any case—even for unpractised hands a broadsword levied against a villain would do more to intimidate than a mere bit of rope.
“Remain here, I shall return shortly. If any should enter go to the window and call out; I will hear you.”
She looked wary but did not try to stop him from leaving. He told himself all would be well. The tavern was empty, and only the occasional snore from another occupant floated through the hall as he stole down the stairs, but that did little to quiet his nerves.
It was a curious thing, this urge to defend and protect, even against non-existent dangers. It caused his pace to quicken and he could not deny an urgent tug at his mind that it was important he return to her.
As he expected, the morning was crisp and a fine mist covered the ground in an eerie haze. After visiting the privy Garrick hesitated, torn between his desire to return to Mairi and his inclination to confirm that Callum was seen to properly. Normally he would have done so the night before, to ensure that he was fed and watered, and that his hooves were free from any debris that could cause discomfort or injury.
He smiled wryly as he remembered how he had done much the same for Mairi only the evening before. Perhaps if he thought of her as a horse, a friend, instead of a potential wife it would be easier for him.
Taking a deep breath he tried to focus on the small part of him that felt tethered to the room above, wondering if this intuition stemmed from any true danger toward her or merely the perfectly natural desire to be near her—to enjoy her form and her smiles, which she offered so readily whenever he was not too gruff or surly.
He rather thought the latter, so he stepped into the stables, the soft breath of the sleeping stable boy barely audible as it drifted from the loft above.
Callum’s head appeared over one of the stall doors, and Garrick rubbed his nose fondly with his uncovered palm. “You know it is too early for your breakfast, you plump beast. I merely wanted to see that you were well.”
The horse released a large huff of annoyance at being woken without promise of a treat, and Garrick patted his neck once more in apology. “We shall leave soon enough, and I am certain if you are obstinate enough you can ply far too many apple cores from that foolish boy charged with watching you.”
Too long he had lingered but already the unsullied air cleared away the equal measures of desire and embarrassment he had experienced, and he felt somehow lighter as he hurried back to his temporary chamber.
Mairi was waiting for him when he returned, staring anxiously at the door from within her bundle of blankets, her brow furrowed with apparent worry. “You were gone a very long time.”
He grunted. A part of him bristled at being accountable to another, used to doing what he pleased simply because it pleased him to do it. But as he saw her worry, he softened, knowing that without his protection she was vulnerable to all sorts of atrocities—even in what should have been the safety of a bedchamber.
“My apologies. Callum required my attention.” Not true in the strictest sense, but it evidently appeased her for she pressed no more about the matter, though his eyes narrowed suspiciously as he watched her nibble on her lower lip, her gaze settled in her lap.
He half waited for her to finally ask him the way to the privy, but the request never came.
“I do not wish for you to be uncomfortable, but to mend my dress I shall need to remove it. It is unacceptable for you to see a female’s form if you are unmarried, yes?”
He knew that she said it for his benefit—that to her they were truly one and she bore his reticence with as much patience as she could. But unbidden came the image of her nude form reclined upon the bedclothes, smiling as he entered the room as she darned the hole in the shoulder of her garment.
And he wanted it.
He wanted the simple domesticity, the fondness and familiarity that came from married life—or at least, what he thought must come from such relations.
First he had to show her. He wanted her happiness, but he would not allow her to waste herself upon a man that did not appreciate her. As Harold had reminded him, she was a gift—one he had neglected.
But no more.
He cleared his throat. “I shall mend it for you. But first, we tend to our mouths.”
She stared at him, aghast. “Do what?”
Garrick grimaced, realising that he should have been clearer as visions of them kissing flooded his mind, but he pushed them away furiously. He could not often afford a bath, but if there was one thing he could not abide it was the taste of his mouth in the morning, and surely hers would be feeling similarly.
He rummaged through his bag and pulled out a jar, gesturing for her to join him by the washstand. He poured a generous amount of water into the waiting basin before showing her how to chew and rinse the minty poultice that left his mouth feeling, and imperatively, tasting all the more pleasant.
She seemed unsure about the process and he wondered if this was yet another oddity about her that she did not suffer the same afflictions as he. Her smile was impeccable, so whatever her usual habit would not leave her with the tooth-rot that afflicted so much of the population.
Mairi breathed out heavily and sniffed the air, and he could not help but watch her in amusement as she caught whiff of the crisp mint and smiled in satisfaction.
“Now, shall we see about your garment?”
She nodded and appeared somewhat shy as she sat down upon the bed. “Have you a pine needle? I considered going to look for one but I thought you would be angry.”
Garrick found the small pouch that held his own mending supplies. Perhaps some had daughters and wives to tend to such matters, but he had only his own two hands. And he did so dislike holes in his tunics and breeches.
“You were correct. And besides, I highly doubt a bit of dried shrubbery could be as effective as this.”
He revealed his own iron needle, smooth and sharp and well cared for. He took a bit of bee’s wax and plied the point, wanting to do his best at tending to her gown.
It was his fault it was damaged, and just as he looked after her wound, he would do his best to repair any remembrance of the unfortunate episode.
“Now, where is your thread?”
She gestured to one of the hidden pockets of his cloak, and before long he had snipped and readied the needle.
Mairi had already unwound the length of tunic that serviced as a bandage and as soon as he touched the fabric of her dress it was obvious even the most skilled of tailors would fail to keep the original integrity of the material. The colour of the thread was excellent, the same port wine that made her skin appear so pale and luminescent...
But it was made of wool and not the delicate strands that seemed to have been wrought from fairies instead of anything possibly human.
He shook his head. Tales of nymphs and wishes had evidently addled his brain. He was not even yet certain if she was to be believed, let alone introduce all manner of fantastical beings into possible existence.
He eyed the holes critically. The arrow head, while narrow, had caused an impressive gash to form, made worse by his attempt at bandaging. Too frightened had he been to ask her to remove the gown so he had tucked compresses beneath her sleeve against the injured flesh, only to then dress the wound and hold it fast from the exterior.
But to mend it properly he should do so from the inside, and he swallowed thickly as he tested the idea against his resolve to leave her untouched until he could be sure, absolutely certain, that she submitted to the idea of him as her mate, her husband, because she cared for himand not simply his title as such.
If it became too much he would merely flee the room under the pretence of seeing to their morning meal. He nodded to himself, satisfied that even should he fail to keep to his task, he had a sufficient excuse.
“I shall have to partially remove your gown.”
She smiled at him softly. “I supposed you would, but I thought it better to allow you to come to that conclusion on your own. Would you like to unlace it, or should I?”
“I will,” he rasped out, then grew embarrassed at his enthusiastic agreement. She glanced at him knowingly, and he was quick to supply a genuine reason. “It would hurt your shoulder to bend so, and I will not have you straining your injury when I can prevent it.”
She hummed but turned slightly so that her back and the fragile laces that held the even more fragile gown closed about her were exposed to his view.
Garrick had always possessed nimble fingers. Long and lean, there was no fine task that was beyond his capability. That particular feature was especially useful when plucking away at the strings of his lyre, and he was able to coax many songs and melodies from the instrument.
But with this he fumbled.
He picked at the knot and silently cursed his incompetence when it refused to yield, and for a brief and terrible moment he considered taking out the knife tucked in his boot and slicing the dreadful apparatus from bottom to top.
Yet to do so would leave her unbearably exposed, with nothing but his own torn tunic for a covering, and he would not impose upon her modesty in such a way.
And it would make him seem a brute, incapable of the delicate action required.
So he took a steadying breath and was greatly relieved when the impudent little knot untangled, only to then lose all of his senses as each bit of angel-white, unmarked skin was revealed.
Except for where it was not.
Except for when he pulled away the last compress and saw the red and angry mark that he had placed there.
And perhaps some small, possessive side of him liked the notion that even if she could find a way to be free of him, there was something real and tangible that would remind her of him. But the rest mourned for what would never be as pristine as before she knew him. It would heal, of that he would ensure, but there would always be a scar because of his mistake.
She held the gown close to her chest even as he eased her arm through the sleeve.
“Do you cover your breasts for your sake or for mine?” He said the words before he could consider how wholly inappropriate it was to enquire.
Mairi stared at him for a long moment, judging him as surely as he was judging how best to approach mending the torn material.
And to his complete and utter surprise she let the bodice drop, and the silk pooled at her waist. “For yours. I have no shame about being with my mate, but you are not ready to consider me as such. I am trying to be understanding.” He tried to grimace at the prim way she spoke to him, but all he could focus on were her newly exposed breasts, and any thought fled his mind.
His fingers trembled and he clutched them into fists to keep from touching her.
And he realised how improper he was being and he tried to avert his eyes, to keep to his task, but he failed miserably until she pulled up her gown once more, leaving only her shoulder and slivers of back exposed. “It pleases me that you think me desirable. But I do not think we should be together until you are ready to take me as a mate in your heart.”
The whole situation was ludicrous. She was so clearly ready to give herself to him, wholly and completely, if only he would surrender to her charms, her delightful innocence, and the tenuous bits of love that she extended to him.
His head hung in shame, at last beginning to darn the ragged edges of her sleeve.
“I must return to the kingdom that sent me here for final payment. Then we may go wherever you please.”
He sewed quietly, Mairi content to watch his work, thought it made him feel all the more inadequate as his fingers wavered and hesitated. Why had he not allowed her to do it herself? He could have waited outside while she worked if her state of undress had been too much for him.
Garrick moved to the second split, this one larger than the first. The water that had drenched her did much to remove evidence of her strange blood, and he was pleased with how it came together.
“You care for me. That is why you feel you must prove yourself a capable mate. If you felt nothing it would not matter to you if I did not care for you either.”
Garrick made no reply.
“That is all right. I would like you to care for me, and perhaps you could even come to... love me, with enough time.” She sighed. “I should like that very much.”
“Coming to love you would be no great difficulty, little nymph,” he murmured lowly.
She raised a tentative hand, the other still carefully concealing her tantalising flesh. “And I am coming to realise that loving you shall be no great difficulty either. You must simply allow yourself to believe that.”