Mairi had never imagined such a structure. It was entirely made of stone, with large circular towers that rose high above them. The open spaces surrounding them lacked entirely in flora, dirt roads deeply impacted by tread and wear the only bits of earth she could see.
“Are you nervous, little nymph?”
Unthinkingly she had pressed herself as close to Garrick’s body as she could manage, and her grip on his arm was firm. She forced herself to loosen her hold in case he should need to hastily have use of his arm—or his sword—though she was grateful when he only held her more firmly instead.
“You have no need to be. This should not take overly long and then we shall see about finding that home you desired.”
How could he think himself unlovable when already his words could infuse her with such warmth and tenderness?
“I trust you, Garrick.” She nibbled her lip. “But are there usually this many people?”
The market she had sought sanctuary in had been bustling with bodies, and so far the home of not-Garrick’s-king was remarkably similar. But instead of merchants calling out for her to try their wares, these people bustled and busied with building wooden structures and hanging bright and colourful fabrics from every nook they could find.
“Nay. It appears they are preparing for a tournament.”
She almost asked what a tournament entailed but they had come to two large and intricately carved wooden doors, and Garrick dismounted. She smiled at him gratefully when he reached up to help her down from Callum’s high seat before he gestured for a young boy to take him to the stables.
“Mind he is well treated! I do not take kindly to those who forget to give him a proper rub down.”
“Of course, m’lord!”
The boy gave a short bow, his eyes taking in Garrick’s armour with a wary expression.
“They fear you.”
Garrick took her hand and placed it on his arm, the heavy doors suddenly opening, seemingly of their own accord. “Aye, they do, and rightly they should.”
He led her onwards, and she marvelled at the high stone arches and tall ceilings, though she refrained from imploring Garrick to slow his gait so she could appreciate them at her leisure.
She was inexplicably nervous.
The elders of her people were highly respected, and while some could inspire more reverence than their more benevolent counterparts, Mairi had never been overly distressed at meeting with them.
But the idea of this king—this king who was not Garrick’s king—made her move a bit closer to her bond-mate, seeking the assurance of his presence. “Fear not, little nymph. He cannot hurt you. Simply smile and keep close to me and all shall be well.”
She appreciated his instruction and was glad that the requirements for an audience with a king did not include her being torn from his side.
“Ah, my faithful assassin returns! And bringing an addition with him, I see. How delightful.”
Garrick stiffened but continued his approach. A man sat on an ornate throne, the gems and precious metals glistening in the afternoon sun. He was elevated, and as they approached, Mairi thought it strange that he should be so. Did not the king like to confer with his people as equals? Even during matters of censures the elders would come alongside the troublemaker, stating their disappointment and advice in such a manner that was both gentle yet firm.
Things were so different in this world.
“The deed has been done, as you have requested. I am here only to receive payment.”
The man, older than Garrick but certainly not an ancient, narrowed his eyes. “Still so ill-mannered. Most would bow and remove their helm in the presence of a king, lord assassin; you would do well to follow their example.”
Garrick merely inclined his head. “Payment?”
The king’s mouth drew to a grim line but he quickly recovered. “If you shall not offer me the necessary courtesies then you may at least introduce me to your enchanting companion. She must be very important should you take her with you on your... dealings of trade.”
“Mairi. My wife. The man is dead, as you requested. There was much blood, as you also requested. And now, payment.” Garrick spat the word with some distaste, and Mairi glanced up at him in surprise. When she had witnessed the altercation between Garrick and the man he had killed, she had assumed that it was always so gruesome and messy.
“Always so quick to deal with business instead of tending to matters of propriety.” The king rose and descended the many steps until he stood before them. His height was short compared to Garrick’s, but tall for a man. He was also of a greater build than she had anticipated, and she hid behind her bond-mate as best she could. “Mairi, was it? And from which kingdom do you hail?”
Mairi’s eyes darted from the man smiling at her expectantly and the many guards and finely dressed people that lined the grand room. “I...” Garrick had said she had only to smile!
“She is from the North, and our courtship was quick. You can understand why I am anxious to receive payment and return with her to my home.”
She blushed deeply, the insinuation in his voice clear even to her. It should not trouble her to hear her mate reference their most personal of acts—especially when they had yet to occur—but it did. And suddenly she wished to pull away from him, even as her nerves grated in the presence of this unknown ruler.
The king’s smile broadened. “Indeed. But it is so late in the day and I would certainly be a poor host to allow you to leave without respite. Your lady appears as though she would appreciate a hot bath and a warm bed.” Mairi tugged at her dress, wondering if it truly looked so rumpled as to suggest Garrick had not cared for her sufficiently.
“That will not...” Garrick began, but the king quickly interjected.
“And besides, perhaps during the evening meal I could persuade you to participate in our humble tournament. I do so look forward to crowning a rightful champion.”
The idea of experiencing the hot bath he mentioned was a tempting one. She remembered how wonderful the steaming water had felt upon her then-abused feet, and the idea of being entirely submerged, perhaps with Garrick there again to tend to her so sweetly...
Garrick was watching her. Before it would have been difficult to tell for certain since his face was so obscured by the nature of the helm, but now she could feel his eyes as they sought her opinion, and she finally met his gaze. She would not implore him—if he truly wished to leave immediately she would follow without protest. But the idea of sharing this with him was a tantalising one, and they had not yet gotten to celebrate their sealing properly—something she hoped would soon be rectified.
“Very well. We shall stay the night.”
The king clapped his hands. “Excellent! Someone shall show you to the bathhouse and then to your accommodations. The feast to commemorate the tourney begins at sundown, and I hope you shall be able to tear yourself away from your lovely bride long enough to attend.”
Garrick grumbled lowly and Mairi could not quite make out the meaning, but it was obvious he did not appreciate the king mentioning their more intimate activities. Mairi did not approve of it being spoken of so publically either—the acts between bond-mates was a sacred affair, and not to be impugned through mockery and jest. She found it ridiculous that Garrick acted as though it troubled him when he was guilty of the same misconduct.
She tried not to be troubled by it, but when he took her arm and they followed after someone seemingly knowledgeable about the location of these hot baths, she did not feel as comforted by his touch as she had before.
“You are troubled.”
He was peering at her intently and the part of her that was not offended by his improper speech revelled in his use of their bond to tell of her irritation. But the rest of her thought him boorish and course, and she did not appreciate that the king would now assume they were about to seal their bond.
So instead she sniffed and remained silent, continuing to follow the young woman who led them down into the bowels of the fortress. Mairi had expected it to grow colder the deeper they traversed into the stone crypts, but the air was warm and somewhat misty.
Garrick took hold of her arm and appeared ready to say something, but instead she turned to their guide. “How is it so warm?”
“The castle was built upon the remnants of a hot spring, m’lady. It makes for a lovely bath and I’m sure you shall be quite comfortable here.” The girl’s eyes flickered to Garrick’s looming presence beside her, trepidation obvious in her countenance. At any other time Mairi might have nestled closer to his side, wishing to relay that he was kind and gentle with her. But the sting of his insinuations still sent a remembrance of mortification through her and she waited patiently for the girl to continue leading them onward.
She pushed steadily against a wooden door, swollen and cracked from moisture, and eventually gestured them through to a steaming pool cut into the stone floor. “Beggin’ your pardon, m’lady but I didn’t know if you and your lord husband would be liking to bathe together or separately...” She blushed as she said it, her eyes resolutely on the floor.
Garrick’s voice was commanding and allowed no room for refusal.
The girl nodded and hurried to a low cabinet in the corner, filled with neatly folded linens that Mairi supposed were intended for drying.
“And we are not to be disturbed. I do not care how you go about it but until we exit this room, none shall enter lest their lives be forfeit.”
Her eyes widened and Mairi would easily see she trembled, but she curtseyed swiftly all the same. “Of course, m’lord. None shall enter.”
She all but ran from the room, and Mairi tried to conjure up the feelings of wonderment and excitement being so near to such a large quantity of hot steamy water. But instead she felt the remnants of her frustration with her bond-mate, no matter how she wished them away.
Mairi remained by the door, surveying the little room while Garrick began the tedious process of removing his armour. If he was surprised that she did not offer to help he made no comment of it.
Eventually he was left in nothing but his breeches, the rest of his accoutrements lying in a tidy pile at his feet. “Do you not intend to undress?”
She gave him a fleeting look, still finding it odd that his face was uncovered. His hair was shaggy and dark and from the way he held his head, with some of it coming to conceal his features, it was evident he found the exposure still somewhat discomfiting. “I have already had a bath this day. I hardly need another.”
With great effort she kept from giving the enticing water a longing glance. But it seemed inappropriate to engage in any such intimate activities when someone knew they were indulging in them.
Garrick sighed. “Speak, little nymph. It is clear that something is wrong and that I have offended you in some way, but you must give me some reprieve by pointing out at least the general description of my transgression. Did the king frighten you?”
She blinked at him. “Why should he have frightened me? You promised you would not allow him to do me harm.”
“Aye, and yet you are the farthest away from me you have been in nearly a sennight’s time.”
She nibbled her lip, trying to decide if she should relent and speak her troubles aloud or give herself time to overcome them without adding to his many burdens.
But he told her to speak—or perhaps demanded was a more accurate distinction—and that same impulse to do as he bid, simply because he asked it, flared anew.
“I did not like your insinuations to the king. I am your mate; and what we do... what we shall do is private.” She stopped, suddenly wondering if he did not consider it so. “Or is it not to you? Do your people openly suggest and discuss what should be only known between us two?” She worried her gown between her fingers, not at all liking that he would divulge the nature of their wonderful, burning kisses to another person.
He came forward quietly, but with purpose, his large hand encircling hers before leading her forward. “Come.”
Any protest died upon her lips at the intensity of his gaze as he led her to the edge of the pool and then took her by the shoulders, turning her away from him. “What are you...”
“Hush. You have voiced your trouble and now it is time for me to remedy them.”
She heard rustling behind her but did not even dare to peek at what he must be doing. Soon gentle fingers were tugging at the laces of her gown and she almost squeaked out another enquiry as to his intentions, but just as her dress was about to fall to the floor he pulled his tunic over her head and tugged at it until she was mostly covered.
And then he took her hand once more and pulled her into the bath.
And it was glorious.
She must not have been so achingly cold this time for there was no painful stinging in her toes or fingers, just a welcoming warmth that soothed aching muscles and joints and lulled her into a pliable waif, helpless but to move and soak as Garrick prompted.
“You misunderstand, Mairi. These kings—nay, in truth, most men—they are not interested in hearing of a bond between a husband and wife. They wish to hear of lewd details, of trysts in the woods or with a willing trollop in the local tavern. When I have dealings with them I allow them to take the information I provide as they will, as ultimately it means nothing.” He drew closer, his hands coaxing her to lie in the wonderfully hot water, supporting her as she floated on the surface.
He bent low and his breath sent a shiver through her as it met the moistness of her skin. “Only we know what we feel when we touch, when our lips meet and our souls mingle. Only ever us.”
Her mind was hazy, the comfort of the bath mixed with the delicious feel of his hands as they kept her from slipping under the surface of the water made her thoughts muddle as she tried to remember her previous feelings. “But...”
“I shall be mindful of your modesty in the future, Mairi. But know that I would never dream of revealing what passes between us. The way your skin feels beneath my palm, the breathy little gasp you release as I pull away from a kiss—I covet such knowledge, and would never share it with the likes of my fellow men. Not for all the gold in all the kingdoms.”
Her eyes fluttered closed as she felt the sincerity, the wisps of love and beginning desire for more drift across their bond—seeking, finding, and mingling in mutual yearning for one another. “You are safe with me... in all things. But especially in this.”
She believed him. She would trust that he said what was necessary before the leaders of his realm, remembering that he valued his privacy and would do all he could to protect hers as well.
Mairi peeked out with one eye, revelling in the way his gaze burned down at her. “Are you going to kiss me now?”
Garrick required no other encouragement.
His hands supporting her back drew away and for a moment she ceased her lovely floating and panicked that she would fall in the deep pool, but his hands found her and brought her close, his mouth seeking hers with all the intensity he could muster. And as her legs brushed against his she noted with surprise that Garrick had removed his breeches.
She was in naught but his own black tunic, and she wondered if he would seal them then, truly and properly, in that very pool.
But soon he ended the kiss and rested his forehead upon hers, his breath ragged and his eyes bright. “Tell me you want this. Want me.”
She knew what he asked. Perhaps without the benefit of their bond she would think he was asking her permission to continue their activities, to join them in the most intimate of sealings. But his voice was quiet and pleading, and she felt his vulnerability as acutely as if it was her own. “I want you Garrick. All of you. In every way. Even if you still bore your scars, I would want you.”
He released a shuddering sigh and pulled her close into his embrace, and his body was warm and hard, muscle and sinew, firm from years of conflict and struggle. Perhaps he was not as burly as some of the other men she had witnessed throughout her many seasons, but she still felt so very safe within his arms.
For there was no doubt that he treasured her as she always dreamed he would.
“Come. It will be sundown soon and I would not wish the king to send servants to look for us.”
She nestled a little closer, not yet ready to be parted. But an unwelcome consideration infiltrated the perfection of the moment and thinking of some unsuspecting person walking in on them—perhaps a young woman as brash and forward as Mabel had been—who would then get to see and appreciate Garrick’s fine form that was only hers to witness was distressing in the extreme.
“Very well, my mate. Should you like me to shield my eyes as you redress?” She meant her tone to be light and teasing, but by the way he hung his head and seemed acutely embarrassed, she wished she had not spoken at all.
“I am sorry, Garrick. Of course I shall not look if you do not wish it.”
The confident man who had drawn her into the bath had retreated, and he mumbled his thanks as she turned away, hearing the telltale splash and rustle of clothing as he made himself decent once more.
She expected him to tell her when he was finished so that she too could don her gown, but instead she released a yelp of surprise when he plucked her out of the water, wrapping her tightly in clean linen before proceeding to dry her, thoroughly and methodically.
“You have drenched my tunic, little nymph, and I cannot have that. You might not like me to walk above stairs without being clothed.”
She bit back her defence that he had been the one to put her in the garment, as she realised he was merely offering an excuse to touch her.
So she let him work and dry and rub until finally he helped her back into her gown and pulled on his slightly damp tunic.
The journey to their room was a hurried one. One glance outside revealed that the sun had already slipped beneath the horizon, and Mairi wondered if the king would be angry at their delay. As soon as they had emerged from the bathing rooms an obviously anxious servant had appeared and offered to escort them to their chamber.
Mairi was unused to the many steps that bespoke of just how large and tall this fortress truly was, and before long she was quite exhausted. She almost wished she could ask Garrick to carry her up the many flights, but he was heavy laden carrying his armour and had little ability to bear her as well.
But finally they were ushered into a chamber, the likes of which were beyond Mairi’s imaginings. A fire was lit and was already doing wonders to ward off the slight chill of the previously unused accommodation. The walls were draped with rich fabrics of deep hues that provided some semblance of warmth to the stone room. There was a large bed—far larger than the one at the tavern—that was equally adorned with luxurious linens, and for a moment she wished to ignore the king’s offer of a meal in favour of seeing if it was as soft and wonderful as it appeared.
“Wait there, we shall be ready to descend in a moment.”
The little servant girl gave a curtsy and did not seem the least offended when Garrick shut the door in front of her, leaving himself and Mairi alone.
The rug before the large fireplace beckoned to her as the delicate threads seemed to shimmer in the glow of the flames.
Garrick was rifling through his saddlebag, servants evidently having brought it to their chamber by someone’s order. She hoped he would not be angry for their presumption.
He quickly exchanged his tunic and even donned a doublet of even finer quality. It was a very dark grey, the careful black stitching offsetting the colour remarkably.
She thought him terribly handsome.
She smoothed her skirts and hair as best she could, suddenly wishing she had something to change into as well. “You are loveliness itself, Mairi. It is I that am...” He stopped, years of practice at defaming his appearance impossible to overcome all at once.
“You are very fine to look upon, my mate. And you are very kind to care for me as you do.”
He shifted uncomfortably, waving a hand over the neat pile of armour resting near the wall. “I generally wear it at all times. It is better than explaining the mask.”
She shook her head and held out a hand, and she was pleased how readily he stepped forward to receive it. “It is better this way.”
The feast was a bustle of lively conversation, boisterous laughter, and stringed instruments that only added to the merriment. Mairi watched it all with rapt attention. There were long tables that held copious amounts of food, and the individuals seated on both sides held little qualms about filling their plates enthusiastically. Girls and young men mingled throughout the tables, filling wine goblets and clearing away empty trays, and Mairi thought she saw a few swiping off bits of not-quite cleared and stuffing them into pockets.
Were they not fed adequately?
“Ah, my guests of honour! I would not have recognised you without your lovely wife on your arm.”
Garrick was rigid but led her to two empty seats near the king. A younger man was seated on his opposite side, and Mairi thought that he showed some distaste at the king’s greeting. “Amour must be removed sometime.”
From his demeanour Mairi could easily see that Garrick was uncomfortable, so unused was he to people looking at his bare features. She took his hand as they settled in their respective places, and she sought to distract him. “What shall my stomach like tonight, my mate? Nothing with meat, please.”
From the corner of her eyes she could make out the small twitch of his lips that belied her success, and she watched with satisfaction as he filled her plate with all kinds of interesting looking foodstuffs—minus the obvious remnants of a deer that were artfully displayed upon a platter.
Garrick did not look at the king, but merely inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement. “There is a fine purse available to the champion of my little tournament. It might even be enough for you to retire for a while and see to your new wife properly! I have not had the pleasure of seeing your skills for myself, but tales of your prowess have reached my ears. Perhaps I could even be persuaded to double the prize if it meant your participation.”
“I have no need to fight. I shall receive payment on the morrow and then we will depart.”
The king shook his head. “A pity. Your bride does certainly appear weary from your travels—or perhaps it is simply your company that tires her. New wives are ever so delicate, you know.”
So long she had relied on his eyes and the set of his mouth to reveal his emotion, but now that their bond was stronger and his face was no longer covered, Mairi could easily see the anger in his expression.
But before he could retort, an anxious looking young man holding a pitcher came forward. “I’m so sorry to disturb you, m’lord, but it seems the stable hand is having some trouble with your horse.”
Garrick blanched, his mouth forming a firm line. He glanced down at Mairi, his eyes flickering to her nearly full plate. “Remain here and eat, little nymph. I shall return shortly after I have dealt with their incompetence.”
She watched him go, almost wishing he had taken her with him.
“So, you have been wedded to our fine assassin for how long?”
Mairi blushed and dearly hoped Garrick would return soon. She did not know how to conduct herself in this manner—not when her elders were so different from this strange ruler. She was terribly afraid of saying something that would upset Garrick, or perhaps even endanger him because she did not know the proper words to speak.
“Not long, King...” she sighed, realising she did not even know how to address him.
He smiled, learning closer. “Drostan. You may call me Drostan. Now tell me, your husband said that yours was a hasty courtship. Did you dishonour your noble house by bedding him before you were wed? Was he so overcome by your beauty that he plucked a maiden’s rose before securing her hand?”
Mairi leaned back, deeply offended by the question. “Garrick would never have... we have not...”
The king’s eyes widened in surprise. “You have not yet consummated your marriage? Then you are not truly one, my dear. Someone might be liable to annul your vows and take you for themselves.” He reached forward and ran a finger down the length of her long tresses, ignoring the way she lurched away. “Food for thought.”
And though she still trembled from nervousness and a sudden awareness that Garrick had been correct—that this king liked to examine and enquire about things that were most assuredly not his business— what held her attention most was the meaning of his warning.
They were not truly married?