Travelling was not what Mairi expected.
She was more sore than she had ever thought possible, even though she relied mostly on Garrick to keep her on Callum instead of utilising her muscles as he seemed to do. He promised her more than once that she would become accustomed to it, but now, a sennight into their journey to Calidore, she was beginning to doubt his word.
Things had changed between them over the course of their travels. Garrick made valiant attempts to mind his tongue, and took excellent care of her wound—which hardly gave her trouble anymore. He always situated the bedroll for her at a respectable distance to the fire and offered his cloak when she was cold. He also hunted, citing the need for meat for himself, yet she was glad when he returned, grumbling and cursing about a lack of game.
She only nibbled on a biscuit and hid a secret smile—though evidently she failed to conceal it completely for he glared at her indignantly.
“A man requires meat, Mairi, not only hard biscuits and bits of cheese.”
She could not help but roll her eyes, knowing she would be far away from their camp if ever he did manage to procure an animal for feasting—manly needs or no.
But what changed most of all was their conversation. It was clear he did not yet fully believe that she was anything but a human female, but he still prodded and kindly enquired as to her past. Some days she remembered more details than others, and when his questions were met with only befuddled memories that she could not access, he would murmur apologies and sometimes offer his arm for her to rest her head upon—a small show of comfort that she held onto covetously.
Their only true contact with other people had been the few travellers they met on the road, though many kept a wide berth and paused, lowering their heads until Garrick and Mairi had passed.
“Why do they do this?” she finally asked, wondering if perhaps Garrick was of higher standing than even she had considered.
Garrick grunted. “My armour; they have heard tales of it in this land.”
“Tales? Like they speak of my people, with wishes and beddings?”
He grimaced at that, and his arm about her waist tightened. “In a way. Although they believe that I bring death in my wake. I am certain seeing a beautiful maid upon my steed does little to allay their fears.”
He did not look at her as he said this, and she wondered if it bothered him—that they would be so fearful merely at his coming. And some tug at her heart made her feel the need to offer him reassurance. “I am not afraid of you.”
His eyes crinkled slightly, and she knew that he was pleased. “I should hope you are not. Of course there are advantages to their fear. I am respected and few try to challenge me unless I openly threaten something they care for. I make it a habit not to do so.”
Perhaps what Mairi liked best about their trek was when Garrick would stop along the river and allowed Callum to rest. He only did so when there was a heavy covering of trees to ensure their privacy, so it was not every day—but often enough that Mairi found herself looking forward to denser parts of the forest that loomed ahead. They would picnic at the bank, and on one particularly exciting day, he began to remove his armour.
She watched him curiously as he turned away, replacing his helm with his mask before removing the rest of the metal coverings. “Would you care for assistance?”
He fumbled with a gauntlet and it dropped to the ground with a clamour, apparently not expecting her offer of aid. “If you would like; though I am perfectly capable of seeing to it myself.”
She sighed and rose from her seat on a rather large boulder, approaching him. “I am aware of that, but that does not mean you must do it yourself. You do not protest when you have helped me with my laces. Perhaps I like to help you as you like to help me.”
He remained silent but did not complain as she unbuckled and made a neat pile of his armour, leaving him in his tunic and breeches.
“Are we to make camp here? We usually ride until dusk.”
Garrick removed his boots. “We are nearly to Calidore. We shall rest here and I shall bathe before we procure the rest of my payment.”
She had never seen him bathe before. He would take a cloth—she suspected he had pilfered it from the tavern before they departed—and wet it before wiping down all the bits of exposed skin that he could reach. She had offered to help in that as well, but he had merely stared at her for a long moment before giving her a curt, “Thank you, but no.”
Whoever had employed him must have been very important to demand a full bath. Mairi nibbled her lip thoughtfully. “Would you be terribly upset if I joined you? I promise I shall keep my gown on.”
She had meant it teasingly, though she truly did wish to experience the brisk water for herself. But Garrick released a rather choked rasp, and she worried that she had offended him. “Forgive me, I should not have spoken.”
He shook his head and stepped into the water swiftly. It was deeper now than when she had first experienced it, and he dove headfirst beneath the surface. He stayed under for longer than she anticipated, and before long she crept forward, the water rippling against her toes as she peered into the depths. “Garrick?”
He rose up with a gasp, shaking the water from his hair as he did so. “You may certainly join me, Mairi, if that is your desire.”
There was something curious about the way he was behaving, and she looked at him warily for a moment before relenting. It was cold, but not as icy as before, the warmth of spring continuing to brush away the last remnants of winter. She walked forward carefully, acutely aware this time that slippery rocks could foil even the surest of footsteps.
Garrick watched her with apparent amusement as she crept forward. “Aye, it is bracing. You shall grow used to it more quickly if you hurry.”
The water was up to her thighs, but before she could decide if she should leap into it as he had done, Garrick came closer and tugged at her hands firmly, pulling her further until her toes barely skimmed the bottom.
Garrick seemed so at ease in the water, kicking and floating about as he pleased, though now his feet were firmly planted on the murky floor, his shoulders not even submerged.
But for Mairi the water came nearly to her nose and she had to tilt her head just so to keep the ability to breathe, and she clung to him fiercely, afraid at any moment he would release her and her head would disappear into the depths with no way to reach the shore.
“Hush now, little nymph. There is nothing to fear.”
He held her up a little higher, her head completely out of the water, and she scrambled forward so that she could cling to his chest, her arms wrapped tightly about his neck. “Do not let me drown.”
His arms held her firmly against him, and she briefly wondered if it was simply to encourage her to release the tense grip she had about his neck, as his breath was rather short.
But then his lips were at her ear and suddenly she knew that he liked having her close, needing him. “Never. You are far too precious to succumb to a watery grave, not while I can help it.”
He walked back toward the shore yet she did not release him, enjoying the closeness they shared and the way she felt so safe in his arms—strong, capable arms and a broad chest that made her feel small and protected as long as he was near.
“Why will you not marry me? You must know that I care for you.”
She should not have spoken of it. She had told herself she would wait for him to broach the subject, giving him time to grow accustomed to the idea of her as his wife. But they had grown so easy in their manner, and being in his arms, so very close made her begin to yearn for other things—things that she could only pursue when he acknowledged the true nature of their bond.
And although she knew in her heart that they were one, if he wished to perform the ceremony of his people, she wished he would be ready for it soon.
He groaned, burying his head in her wet tresses, holding her impossibly closer. “I do not know, Mairi. At this moment I truly do not know.”
Her fingers found his hair, brushing through it softly. She wondered at its texture, dripping little streams of liquid that pooled upon the collar of his tunic. “Why do your people keep their hair so short?” It was long enough for her to play with, but just barely. Hair this length was kept for seedlings, not fully grown men.
He nuzzled into her neck, and she smiled, thinking it almost how Callum would seek out her hand for a treat. “Hair that is long can be used against you in a battle—one firm grasp and you are incapacitated.” He paused, and she thought he placed a kiss against her throat. “Does it displease you?”
She ran her fingers through it once more, contemplating. She could not picture him with it any longer. He was not fair like her kin, and it suited him somehow. “No, it does not. And I should not wish for you to be hurt because of it.”
He pulled back from her then, releasing his hold on her back and she slipped down to stand before him in the shallows, her arms still about his neck, though not nearly so securely. “That would trouble you? If I was to be injured?” He huffed and closed his eyes. “Me, and not merely your mate.”
Mairi sighed and fiddled with one of the lacings on his tunic, struggling for the words that would soothe the wounded part of his heart that made him worry so.
She brought his hand to her chest, placing his palm above her heart as she stroked and quieted with a touch of her sensitive fingers, holding fast as he made to pull away. “You cannot feel it? I care for you, Garrick. Not simply because you are my mate but because you are capable of great kindness, great love. You wished to show me that and you shall continue to do so—even though I am only an ignorant little nymph who follows you about and says all the wrong things. I look forward to the day when you will call me your wife, for it is then that I know you have accepted me, not merely from obligation but because you want for me to be yours.”
Garrick swallowed thickly, brushing his thumb against her collarbone. “I wish for nothing more. But it is so unfair to you...”
She scoffed. “You see me as a victim—as though you have thrust yourself upon me, a poor innocent youngling that is coerced into caring for you against my will.” He hung his head shamefully, and she coaxed him to look at her with a gentle touch upon his masked cheek, a teasing smile on her lips. “I believe it is I who has pursued you, m’laird. You wished to set me free, to allow me to plead before my elders for leniency yet I would not go. It was I who wooed you into my bed, if only for sleep.” She went up on tiptoe, mindful of the slippery riverbed beneath her as she whispered in his ear, “I hardly consider that the part of an unreceptive participant.”
He kissed her.
His hands found her waist as he pulled her closer, his mouth melting with hers in a way that was so unlike anything she could have expected. For a moment she was frozen, unresponsive in her surprise but soon she wove her fingers in his hair, urging him all the nearer.
Some part of her heart leapt toward his, and was met and mingled and she had never felt more complete in all of her life.
And it ended far too quickly.
As soon as he pulled away, gasping for breath and looking nearly terrified, she felt as if a part of her soul had taken residence within his, leaving a dull ache in its wake.
But all the more curious was a new presence, a new awareness of the man before her, wrenching away and wading back to shore as she stood there, utterly drenched and bereft of his sudden absence.
He shook his head furiously, tearing off his own soaked tunic and wiping down his exposed skin roughly with his cloak before donning a clean one. “I should not have done that. You must forgive...”
She said it was such ferocity that he did indeed cease his frantic movements, and instead blinked back at her.
Mairi waded forward, her skirts clinging to her legs as she tried to keep from slipping, knowing that she simply had to reach him before this too was allowed to fester. “Do not apologise for that. Never apologise for finally allowing yourself to...”
She took a deep breath, willing down the tears that threatened to fall. “It is as it should be. And I will not have you tainting it with your doubts. I would not kiss you if I did not care, did not love you. Please do not hurt me by continuing to mistrust it.”
Perhaps it was different for his people.
Perhaps they took longer for love to grow, to find its way into their hearts and minds before they were willing and able to express it to their mates.
But for her it was simple—so deliciously simple.
For a piece of him was lodged deep within her heart from the moment he touched her.
With every evidence of his care and attention it began to flourish.
And now she wished for nothing more than for him to confess that he felt the same, and consummate that knowledge with another of his delightful kisses.
Garrick stared down at the pile of armour beside him. “I do not wish to hurt you,” he murmured.
She drew closer, urging him to give in to the growing bond between them. “Then marry me. By whatever means are important to your people, I wish to be your wife.”
He looked up at her then, his eyes blazing and so very dark and she shivered as he pulled her into his arms and kissed her. Once, twice, thrice more before pulling away, her lips tingling and her heart pulsing rapidly at his exuberance. “There is no going back. Once I have called you mine and made you my wife, I shall not offer you a separation as I have done.”
She shook her head determinedly. “I would not ask for one.”
His lips curved in an all too brief smile. “Then we shall be late for our audience with the king.”
Despite how he twitched and sighed impatiently as they lazed about in the sun waiting to dry, Mairi felt a peace like she had never known. Something had altered—something fundamental to their very beings now that he had accepted her. She wondered if it would be even more different when they had pledged themselves to one another as he had explained, but she could not imagine feeling any more contented than she did now.
Garrick took a pinch of her gown between two fingers, rubbing it thoughtfully. “It appears dry enough.”
She giggled. “You seem anxious, Garrick. Do you worry I shall change my mind if you do not hurry?”
He hung his head as he reached for his boots, pulling them on with far more focus than was necessary. “Nay, not for that. I must hurry before I give in to the voice that tells me I must show you my face before I allow you to bind yourself to me.”
Mairi sighed in exasperation. “I have seen your face, and I am already bound to you. You should not be so troubled, not when all is well.”
He fiddled with an errant buckle, and she crept closer, to soothe however she could. “I wish for you to be happy, Garrick. What worries you so?”
His eyes shut firmly he turned away, already his jubilation at her feelings for him fading with self doubt. “What if, after you have married me, you think me too hideous to call husband? I cannot... I will not...” He growled and rose, reaching for each piece of armour and clapping it on roughly, even as she felt through their bond that he was shuttering away pieces of his heart.
“You may show me, if you like. Or you may choose to wear a mask for the rest of our days. As long as you are happy to call me wife and I have you as my mate, I shall be satisfied.”
Garrick sighed, a weary sound that sent a sympathetic surge of awareness through her. “You say that now...”
“I say it always. As often as you need hear it.” Only barely did she resist the urge to stomp her food. They were so close, so terribly close to being happy, and he with all his boorish determination would keep it from them as he tried foolishly to keep her away.
“You have been the one to keep us apart, Garrick. Not I. I may understand your reasons but know that I have been willing and agreeable to our union since I first awoke in your bedroll. I will not part from you whether you agree to our marriage or not, but I should very much like to begin loving you properly, but first you must allow me to do so.”
She came closer and laid her hand gently on the firm muscle of his back, making soothing circles upon it with her fingertip. “You are not ready to remove your mask. To do so now would only cause you pain. So marry me now, and trust that I shall be faithful to you, continue to care for you even after you have shown yourself to me.”
His shoulders trembled and she wondered if he suppressed tears, but he turned and gathered her into his arms, holding her so close it nearly kept breath from entering her lungs. “I want to trust you. But so many have...”
She silenced him by placing a kiss upon his chest, where the undone laces of his tunic exposed slivers of supple flesh that she longed to explore. “Yours are a stupid people, who do not know goodness when they see it. But I do. You are safe with me, just as I am safe with you.”
They departed quickly after that. Even Callum must have sensed their urgency for he made no protest to the abrupt end to his grazing, nor did he object to the steady pace Garrick set. He led her to a stone building, tucked away in a thicket. Moss grew and thrived over most of the structure, save a small patch on the roof where the sunlight warmed it.
He dismounted first and helped Mairi down before hurrying them both into the aging edifice. A stout little man approached them, and after Garrick, dressed completely in his armour, commanded that they be wed, he ushered them to the front and bid them repeat the vows that Garrick had once spoken of with such derision.
To Mairi it was all very strange, but she held his hand and murmured the words she was bid, and loved the way his eyes burned with pleasure as she pledged herself to him. For always.
But most of all she liked when the cleric pronounced them man and wife, and Garrick pulled her away, back to a waiting Callum, who cared little for the now married state of his master and the creature he had collected.
She expected Garrick to help her back onto the saddle but instead he pulled her further into the trees, ensuring their privacy from even the dark and placid eyes of Callum.
He took a steadying breath before taking her face between his palms. “I wish to show you. To trust you. To kiss my new wife as she deserves.”
Mairi nodded her consent, and with a shuddering sigh he removed his helm, this time not turning away to fumble with replacing it with a mask.
He was not as she remembered. She vaguely recalled flashes of scars, ribbons of puckered tissue where smooth, pale flesh should have been.
She reached up to skim the smooth cheek, trying to recall why she had thought him so ill to look upon.
For he was lovely, and so very fair, even if his features were darker than most of her kin.
And when her sensitive fingers made contact with the perfectly formed skin he gasped, his eyes widening as his own hand reached up to cover hers, his face contorting in shock, and... fear?
“Mairi, what have you done?”